Holst The Planets. Varèse Arcana
As handsomely groomed a set of The Planets as one might have expected from the Philharmonia/Slatkin partnership. Thankfully, Holst’s Allegro marking in “Mars” is adhered to, but the tingles come more from the considerable expertise of the orchestral playing and Slatkin’s characteristically sensitive internal balancing (the baleful whine of tenor tuba, for example) than from any particular sense of terror. “Venus” is sophisticated and shapely (voluptuous rather than chaste), “Mercury” exquisitely dapper and light-of-foot. “Jupiter” starts well, with some wonderfully cheeky woodwind articulation from 1'11'' (and, again, later on at 2'58'' and 5'09''), but personally I prefer the big tune (opulently given by the Philharmonia strings) to move on just a little more than it does here. (I could also have done without the slightly sensational ‘thwack’ on the final chord.) Likewise, the opening of “Saturn” promises great things, with real concentration and (in the trombone-led processional) nobility, yet the awesome climax is not quite as imaginatively shaped as it is under Andrew Davis (the highlight of an intelligent, if slightly uneven interpretation); moreover, a faint whiff of glamour hovers over the remainder of this movement, tending to undermine the soothing compassion of Holst’s sublime vision. A highly perceptive coda apart (at 4'42'', listen for a marvellous ‘stab’ from the strings), “Uranus” is disappointingly, curiously half-hearted and fails to raise the expected smiles (Gardiner with the same orchestra on DG is far more effective here), while “Neptune”, for all its refinement and gorgeous liquidity, somehow fails to attain the transcendental heights it surely must (and the comparatively weedy timbre of Slatkin’s children’s chorus fails to convince).
Not quite the exhilarating experience I had been expecting, then (Slatkin can be a riveting interpreter of British music, as we all know), but is the recording also partly responsible, I wonder? Enormously ripe though the results are, the Walthamstow acoustic is not as expansive as some and the beautiful sheen Slatkin habitually draws from the Philharmonia string section is not as evident here as on some previous productions. Deep bass, too, is slightly wanting: those organ pedals at the end of “Saturn” and “Uranus”, for instance, don’t really register with the necessary tummy-wobbling realism.
The daring and imaginative curtain-raiser is Edgar Varese’s extraordinary, uncompromising Arcana (1927), music of truly galactic power, prodigal inventiveness, exuberant resource and rapt wonder. Alas, as the excitable opening immediately reveals, Slatkin’s new version is no match for Chailly’s stunning 1992 Amsterdam account, which is both more refined and enviably clear-headed.