Holst's The Planets – a quick guide to the best recordings

Gramophone Wed 15th February 2017

A quick guide to a few of the finest accounts on record of Holst's hugely influential musical journey across the galaxy

The Planets

London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

LPO

The first quality of this performance that strikes one is its liveness, as revealed in the warmth of the rubato that Jurowski draws from the orchestra. The second strong point is the clarity of the recording, suggesting that the engineers have cracked the longstanding problems of recording in the Royal Festival Hall, for quite apart from the clean separation there is a pleasant aura around the sound, which is far from dry. It is to Jurowski’s credit, too, that he brings out much detail in Holst’s dazzling orchestration that can easily get obscured. The only sound query is the usual complaint that the dynamic range is excessive for most domestic listening, with fortissimo climaxes insufferably loud if the pianissimos are to be heard clearly. That is particularly so in the opening movement, ‘Mars’. Each of the other movements is strongly characterised.

Another quality of Jurowski’s performance is the energy of the syncopated passages as, for example, in ‘Jupiter’, with the timpani prominent in the orchestral balance. When it comes to the big tune, Jurowski gives it the most natural expressiveness in his use of phrasing and rubato. In the final ‘Neptune’ the balance of the LPO Choir is ideally distant, fading away evocatively at the end. All told, an excellent version.

 

Holst The Planets, etc

Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Warner Classics

Near the beginning of his EMI (now Warner) career, Simon Rattle recorded his first Planets. It is excellent but next to this spectacular new account it rather pales away. That 1982 recording cannot compare with the blazing brilliance, warmth and weight of the new one, which fully brings out the glory of the Berlin sound. Some may find the wide dynamic hard to cope with domestically – too loud at climaxes if the soft passages are to be clearly heard – but the body of sound is most impressive, with string pianissimos in ‘Venus’, ‘Saturn’ and ‘Neptune’ of breathtaking beauty.

Rattle’s interpretation has intensified over the years. ‘Mars’ is more menacing and the dance rhythms of ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Uranus’ have an extra lift. Clearly the Berlin players have taken to this British work in the way they did for Karajan. Colin Matthews’s Pluto is given an exceptionally bold performance which exploits the extremes.

The second disc has four works commissioned by Rattle, dubbed ‘Asteroids’. Kaija Saariaho, celebrating the asteroid Toutatis and its complex orbit, uses evocative textures and woodwind repetitions in ostinato patterns, much in line with Holst’s technique. Matthias Pintscher’s Towards Osiris is more individual, featuring a spectacular trumpet solo in celebration of the Egyptian deity who became ruler of the underworld. Again, the piece is reflective rather than dramatic. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Ceres is energetic, with jazzy syncopations typical of the composer, while Komarov’s Fall by Brett Dean, formerly a viola player in the orchestra, builds up to an impressive climax before fading away on evocative trills. Rattle’s boldness in offering such unusual couplings is amply justified, even if most purchasers will concentrate on the superb version of a favourite piece.

 

The Planets with Walton Crown Imperial & Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia

BBC SO / Sir Adrian Boult

Beulah 

Set down in January 1945, this is the earliest and most exciting of the five recordings under the conductor who, in the words of the composer, ‘first caused The Planets to shine’.

 

The Planets

Montreal SO / Dutoit

Decca

Holst’s colourful canvas has rarely been captured with such lustre or transparency by a recording team. Dutoit conducts with infectious bounce and plenty of twinkling affection.

 

The Planets with Egdon Heath

BBC SO / A Davis

Warner Apex

Davis’s admirably prepared account won’t break the bank and enjoys sumptuous, stunningly well-defined recording – try ‘Saturn’ with its devastating climax and floorboard-throbbing organ pedals.

 

The Planets with C Matthews Pluto & Holst Lyric Movement

Hallé Orchestra / Elder

Hyperion

Like the Rattle recording, this one adds Colin Matthews’s ‘Pluto’ (a Hallé commission), and Elder and his orchestra respond with a performance of idiomatic warmth and enthusiasm. The recording is vivid and surprisingly immediate.

 

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017