Holst: The Planets (SACD review)

Also, The Perfect Fool. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-146SACD.

It is always a pleasure to welcome a new Reference Recordings album, especially one engineered by RR's cofounder Keith O. "Professor" Johnson. Since the founding, Professor Johnson has made over 130 recordings for the company, with one characteristic standing out: They all sound like real music in a real musical environment. You can be sure with Keith Johnson's Reference Recordings, for example, that an orchestra sounds the way a real orchestra would sound in a real concert hall. That's certainly the case with this recording of the Kansas City Symphony, under the direction of its longtime Music Director Michael Stern, and made in Helzberg Hall. You're pretty much there with the orchestra.

Now, about the content: Between 1914 and 1916, the early 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 the movements after the astrological signs of the known planets 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.

The music begins with "Mars, the Bringer of War" with its menacing delight. Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war. Maestro Stern starts things out quietly and builds the dynamic contrasts gradually from there, culminating in a strong finish.

The second movement, "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," is a lovely slow section, and for me it is one of the high points of the work. It is sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We also hear echoes here of "The Lark Ascending," written by Holst's good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams a few years before. Maestro Stern takes the music more literally than I have heard it before, losing a bit of something in overall lyricism yet fitting in nicely with the surrounding movements.

Michael Stern
"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" is a "nimble scherzo," which provides a little excitement after the relative calm of "Venus." Under Stern's direction, it's an attractive and charming diversion.

"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" is essentially a big, boisterous Bacchanal, made all the bigger with Maestro Stern controlling the action. It's a rollicking piece, which Stern understands, yet he keeps it tightly wound, never letting it get out of hand. So, under Stern it's big but moderately paced, jolly but never exaggerated.

"Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" was Holst's personal favorite section of the suite. I'm not sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it because of its relative ordinariness in the context of the rest of the music. In any case, it does have some lovely poetic revelations, which Maestro Stern is happy to point up.

After that comes "Uranus, the Magician," the segment that has everything in it 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, so it's a good test of one's stereo system capabilities. Although Stern takes it at a sprightly tempo, which robs it a mite of its mystery, he plays up its big dynamic contrasts, which enhances its excitement.

The suite ends with "Neptune, the Mystic," a wordless female chorus that fades off into silence at the end. As the music can sometimes run on too long and overstay its welcome, Stern paces it well enough that it doesn't happen. It all seems of a piece and ends naturally, not gimmicky.

Accompanying The Planets Maestro Stern gives us Holst's introductory ballet music from the composer's 1923 one-act opera The Perfect Fool. Holst intended for the opera to be a humorous fairy tale, and Maestro Stern plays it that way, light and airy, witty and delightful.

Producer David Frost and engineers Keith O. Johnson and Sean Royce Martin recorded the music at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in January 2015. They recorded it using 24-bit HDCD technology in hybrid Super Audio CD, so it will play back in 2-channel stereo and 5.1 multichannel from the SACD layer and 2-channel stereo from the regular CD layer. As usual, I listened in 2-channel SACD.

Reference Recordings have gotten us into audiophile territory again so expect an enormous dynamic range. There will be a temptation to turn up the volume as you begin. Don't. Things get very loud very quickly enough. There's good imaging involved, left to right and front to back, with sections of the orchestra clearly defined. Note, however, that unlike most live recordings that provide a clinical, close-up perspective, this studio production provides a vantage point that appears about eight or ten rows back from the orchestra. Transparency, therefore, is of the realistic kind, never soft but never glaring or glossy, either. In The Planets I would have preferred a little more upper bass warmth, stronger deep bass, and a tad less lower treble, but that's just me. It's quite good. In The Perfect Fool, everything seems perfect, up and down the spectrum.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 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 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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