Holst: The Planets (XRCD24/K2 review)

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD3.

When EMI first released Andre Previn's recording of The Planets on LP back in 1973, it became an instant favorite of mine. Not only did I find the performance as good or better than anyone else’s, I thought the sound was of reference quality. As of this writing it’s around forty years later, and my opinion hasn’t changed. I still use the “Uranus” movement as an audio standard for judging other recordings and stereo equipment. I first owned the English EMI LP pressing, vastly preferring it to the American Angel pressing; then there was the EMI compact disc, which wasn’t quite as open or solid as the LP; and later the EMI Japan mastering, which improved upon the English product. Now, Hi-Q Records have made a good thing even better in an XRCD24/K2 audiophile remastering of distinction.

Let’s start, though, with the music. English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, during the years of “The Great War,” premiering it in 1918. That might explain why the first couple of segments are about “War” and “Peace.” He titled each movement after the astrological sign of a known planet at the time (not counting Earth), although the music doesn’t really describe zodiac signs or planets so much as it expresses feelings about the various moods of the human spirit. It was Sir Adrian Boult who conducted the first performance of the work and recorded it regularly thereafter. His final disc for EMI in 1979 remains one of my favorites; however, I still prefer this Previn recording to his.

The music begins with the theme of war in “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Under Previn, there’s a strong, menacing forward momentum, without the music sounding raucous or unyielding. Previn’s reading is warlike, to be sure, yet lyrical in its rhythmic beat.

In the second movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” Previn and the LSO handle the lovely adagio delicately, with a rising passion and Romanticism as goes along. The movement--tranquil and serene--provides a relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We also hear echoes in it of Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” written a few years earlier, and Previn was always a subtle and effective interpreter of Vaughan Williams.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is a light-footed scherzo, which supplies a little excitement after the relative calm of “Venus.” Previn seems to delight in it, making it playful and fun.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” comes next, and it’s a natural successor to Mercury, being a big, jovial bacchanal. While Previn ensures it is properly festive and stately, he never lets the music become so rambunctious that it overstays its welcome.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was Holst’s personal favorite segment of the suite, and Previn gives it appropriate weight. Why Holst liked it so much I’m not sure; I find it the least interesting part of the work. Nevertheless, Previn and the LSO play it as persuasively as anyone.

After that comes “Uranus, the Magician,” the section of the disc I often use as a demo piece for friends. It has everything an audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from the softest notes to the loudest fortes; it exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra’s capabilities. What’s more, Previn’s interpretation is appropriately magical and not a little spooky.

The suite ends with “Neptune, the Mystic,” with a wordless female chorus (the Ambrosian Singers) fading off into silence at the end. Previn’s reading is sweet and gentle and not at all sentimental as the piece concludes in the most-distant reaches of space.

Producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Christopher Parker recorded The Planets for EMI at Kingsway Hall, London, in 1973. My job was to compare the sound of this 2012 remastered Hi-Q compact disc with the best previous CD I could find, the 2005 remastered EMI-Japan edition, carefully listening, comparing, and switching out the discs between two CD players on occasion.

Hi-Q remastered the sound using JVC’s XRCD24/K2 technology at JVC’s Mastering Center in Japan. I’ve explained the XRCD process before, so let me just remind you it is probably the most-precise, most-advanced method currently available of transferring material from a master tape to disc, and the results we find on the Hi-Q disc are extraordinarily good.

The Hi-Q sound exhibits excellent depth, air, space, dynamic range, and impact. Compared to the EMI-Japan disc, it displays slightly better transient attack, impact, and cutoff, with a degree better detail and a smoother, tauter, more cleanly and solidly defined body. The miking distance makes the orchestra seem a touch constricted left to right for a seat a bit farther back in the hall than one often hears in extremely close-up recordings. The sonics are also a touch dry at times yet still lightly resonant, with just enough warmth to add to the realism. There was no doubt in my mind about the superiority of the Hi-Q disc’s clarity and punch, its sparkling highs, its deep bass, and its overall transparency.

As always, the folks at Hi-Q provide a premium product with a premium package, a glossy, hard cardboard and plastic Digipak-type container, the booklet notes sewn book-like into the center, the disc fastened to the inside back cover.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa