HOLST The Planets STRAUSS Also Sprach Zarathustra
Edward Gardner directs the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in a traversal of Holst’s The Planets that genuinely excites in its combustible power, enormous physical impact and technical accomplishment. Insights are plentiful, not least a cannily paced ‘Mars’ with some expertly terraced dynamics and where the brutality never lapses into an ugly din. ‘Jupiter’ is rousing, unstuffy and bright-eyed, with a tremendous burst of energy for the presto marking at the close, and it’s flanked by a lissom ‘Mercury’ (how cheekily the NYO’s antiphonally placed first and second violins wink at each other across the sound stage) and an exceptionally perceptive ‘Saturn’, whose unassailable tread foreshadows Holst’s sublime 1927 tone poem Egdon Heath. Elsewhere, I love the sweetly expressive string timbre Gardner obtains in ‘Venus’, and how giddily delirious are the xylophone’s madcap antics during ‘Uranus’. Production-wise, Chandos can be proud of this SACD: that stunningly well-integrated organ glissando in ‘Uranus’ is a treat; ditto the choral fade-out at the end of ‘Neptune’. In short, this is a Planets to relish.
Unfortunately, the performance of Also sprach Zarathustra isn’t quite on the same level. By chance, just the previous week, I’d dug out Clemens Krauss’s vintage 1950 VPO account, which possesses an entrancing elasticity, interpretative nous and poetic sensibility only fitfully glimpsed here, some finely honed playing notwithstanding (dashing work from leader Millie Ashton in ‘Das Tanzlied’). The famous introduction generates ample spectacle, and ‘Der Genesende’ builds to a satisfying peak, but overall Gardner’s reading somehow fails to gel and is nowhere near as convincing as those from, say, Reiner (1954), Kempe, Steinberg, Karajan (1973), Haitink or Andris Nelsons’s CBSO version for Orfeo (recorded in the same venue, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall). Don’t be put off, though: the disc is worth acquiring for this team’s stellar Holst alone.