Holst: The Planets (UltraHD CD review)

Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. LIM UHD 058.

Between 1914 and 1916, the years of “The Great War,” English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, premiering it in 1918. That might help to explain why the first two segments are about “War” and “Peace.” He named each movement after the astrological sign of a known planet at the time, not counting Earth, although the music doesn’t really describe either the zodiac signs or the planets so much as they express feelings about the various moods of the human spirit.

Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first performance and recorded the work regularly, his final disc for EMI in 1979 one of my favorites. However, I actually prefer Andre Previn’s 1974 EMI recording of it with the LSO even more than any of Boult’s, so personal preference is still a big part of the equation.

Which brings us, finally, to this 1986 Telarc recording by Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Apparently, both Previn and Telarc thought so highly of the conductor’s EMI analogue performance, they agreed to do it again, this time digitally. The thing is, even though the sound is digital, it isn’t necessarily better, nor is the performance.

The music begins on an auspicious note as Previn and the RPO introduce us to “Mars, the Bringer of War” with much menacing delight. Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war. Is Previn’s rendition this time more compelling than what he gave us earlier? I don’t thing so; there is just that nth degree of tension missing. Yet it’s still better than most such readings.

In the second movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” the RPO’s playing is quite lovely, and for me it is the high point of Previn’s interpretation of the suite. It’s sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We hear echoes here also of Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” written a few years before, and Previn was always a subtle and effective interpreter of Vaughan Williams.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is a “nimble scherzo,” as the booklet note points out, which provides a little excitement after the relative calm of Venus. Be that as it may, Previn’s rendering does not seem as light or as fleet as in his EMI recording.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” follows, a big, boisterous Bacchanal, which is almost as much fun this second time around for Previn as it was the first time. Still, it seems to dance in a more carefree fashion in the earlier recording, this one a tad more rigid.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was Holst’s personal favorite section of the suite, and Previn gives it appropriate weight. I’m not sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it. In any case, it does have some lovely lyrical contrasts that Previn is more than happy to emphasize.

After that comes “Uranus, the Magician,” the section of Previn’s ‘74 disc I often use as a demo piece for friends. It has everything an audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from softest notes to loudest fortes; it exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra’s capabilities. As good as the LIM/Telarc disc is, I remain an admirer of the EMI presentation. Oddly, where Previn is slower in every other movement for Telarc, in this movement he’s faster and seems a little more matter-of-fact than before.

The suite ends with “Neptune, the Mystic,” its wordless female chorus (Women of the Brighton Festival Chorus) fading off into silence at the end. Previn is properly ethereal as the piece concludes in the most-distant reaches of space.

LIM’s remaster of Telarc’s Planets is quite good and an improvement over the standard Telarc product. However, that doesn’t mean it is “better” than Previn’s EMI analogue recording of a decade earlier. Telarc recorded the music in Watford Town Hall, London, in 1986; LIM remastered it in 2011 using their Ultra High Definition 32-bit mastering process, releasing the album in 2012. When I say the digital production isn’t inevitably better than the EMI analogue recording, I mean that different listeners will have different standards for judging the results. Since none of us can compare the sound of either recording to the actual experiences of 1974 and 1986, a person’s appreciation for one recording or the other becomes a matter of subjective judgment. Which one sounds more “real,” more “hi-fi,” or more “audiophile” can be very personal concerns.

The LIM/Telarc remastering is surely smoother and more dynamic than the EMI disc I own (itself a Japanese Toshiba-EMI remastering from 2005). Nevertheless, the EMI is more transparent, with marginally greater spatiality, dimensionality; the LIM/Telarc sonics are slightly thicker, fatter, heavier, warmer, and softer, the acoustic environment of each recording location no doubt the cause for the differences. Both discs exhibit excellent bass properties and quick transient response. One thing is certain: If you are already a fan of the Telarc recording, the engineers at LIM have improved it, so it won’t disappoint you. It’s not a huge, knock-your-socks-off improvement, but it’s noticeable. Meanwhile, perhaps someday LIM will approach EMI to remaster some of their classic material; I hope they do, and I hope they start with Previn’s ‘74 recording.

Anyway, LIM sweeten the deal with a handsome, high-gloss, hardcover package; a twenty-page bound booklet of notes; and a static-proof inner sleeve. It’s not cheap, but at least the company gives you your money’s worth. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa