Holst: The Planets (SACD review)

Walter Susskind, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4005.

Mobile Fidelity began life as a producer of half-speed remastered vinyl discs. When CD’s came along, they kept pace in the audiophile arena by transferring music to gold discs. These days, having largely moved away from gold discs and on to Super Audio CDs, they have found some good source material in the performances of Walter Susskind, such as this one where he conducts Gustav Holst’s The Planets with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The first and only time other time I heard this recording was almost thirty years ago when it first appeared on a Vox/Turnabout LP in the mid Seventies. It was during the quadraphonic era, and Vox had intended for listeners to play it back in four channels. But I heard it at that time in ordinary two-channel stereo where the sound appeared a mite blurry and noisy to me. Not being too impressed by the sonics at that time, I quickly forgot about the performance. Unlike before, however, I was able to hear it in cleaner, clearer stereo on this Mobile Fidelity SACD, and I regret not having given the performance more credit back then.

Mo-Fi is producing hybrid two-channel/multi-channel discs, so a person can listen to The Planets with or without an SACD player or rear channels. I listened in two-channel stereo through a Sony SACD player, where the sound now appeared better focused, and Susskind’s interpretation of this colorfully descriptive score thoroughly delighted me.

“Mars” begins things with a zesty, saucy bravado. I’ve read that Holst wanted this “Bringer of War” to ridicule the stupidity of war, and surely Susskind’s zippy rendition conveys this thought. Nevertheless, it’s the slower movements that most impressed me, “Venus” and “Saturn” and, of course, the ethereal “Neptune,” with their grace and refinement. Still, it’s “Uranus” that always seems to me the centerpiece of the work, the movement that combines the strongest tensions, the biggest outbursts of emotion, and the softest moments of repose. Susskind handles it superbly, the pacing immaculate. This is quite a nice reading, actually.

The sound, as I’ve said, is a marked improvement over the old vinyl. But one must play it somewhat loudly to enjoy it to the full, in all its spacious grandeur. At a soft or even moderate playback level, there seems to be a degree of cloudiness to the proceedings. Yet at volume, the sound is reasonably firm and well delineated. On the minus side, there is a minor feeling of compartmentalization about it, an absence of ultimate depth, some minor softness about the dynamics, and a lack of truly deep bass, all of which could intrude upon one’s complete surrender to a willing suspension of disbelief. Be that as it may, I’m sure it sounds realistic enough, overall, to please most folks, probably close to the original master tape. It’s an enjoyable disc, and I’m nitpicking.

The only flaw is that since my writing this review, Mo-Fi seems to have discontinued the disc. Alas, if you’re interested in it, you may have to do a search.

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


JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa