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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




DVD AUDIO REVIEW

Gustav HOLST (1874 - 1934)

The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra, Op 32* H125 (1916)
The Ballet from The Perfect Fool, Op 39 H150 (1922)
Egdon Heath, Op 47 H172 (1927)
*Ambrosian Singers (Chorus Master: John McCarthy)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
Recorded at Kingsway Hall, London, September 1973 (H125) and
at No 1 Studio Abbey Road, London, August 1974 (H150/172) ADD
DVD-Audio

EMI CLASSICS 7243 4 92399 9 [76.54]


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This recording of The Planets, generally quite well spoken of by other reviewers, has been around a while and was once available on Quadraphonic LP. Now it is released on a double sided EMI DVD containing the same program in four formats. Side A will play on DVD players (but not on CD players) and contains a four channel ("4.0") AC-3 encoded surround sound format recording and a 2.0 channel Linear PCM stereo version of the identical program in "48/24," that is, 48KHz sampling frequency and 24bit sample depth. On the television screen one sees a pleasing abstract still graphic which changes colour as the successive pieces play, which one may select using the arrow keys on the remote for the DVD player. During the playing of Op.47 the quote from Thomas Hardy inscribed on the score is displayed on the screen. One can also switch back and forth between the two sound formats with keys on the remote. On this particular disk there is no informative text video display.

It must be said that during A/B comparisons I could not detect any improvement in the ambience, in fact any difference whatever in the ambience in the 4.0 version over the 2.0 version played through a Dolby PRO Logic decoder. However the 2.0 version appeared to have significantly higher resolution. That is what I listen to from this side of the disk and I suggest you will do likewise. However, let there be no mistake, even my aged ears can hear a significant improvement in sound between the CD at 44/16 and the DVD at 48/24. Improved transparency, dynamic range, reduced distortion, a greater sense of Ďdepthí or what recording engineers call Ďairí.

Side B again contains two versions of the identical program, one in 48/24 MLP encoded 4.0 surround sound and one in 48/24 2.0 stereo. These are only playable on dedicated DVD-Audio players and when this is accomplished the quality of sound improves another quantum jump over side 1. The dynamic range is richer and orchestral detail so clear that following with a score becomes superfluous, most especially in the surround sound version. Once you hear this, youíll not bother to listen to any other part of the disk. The dynamic range in Mars, for instance, moves from the faintest whisper on the snare drum to the full orchestra with brass choir encompassing a greater dynamic range than Iíve ever heard from any kind of disk before! Timpani are clearly differentiated from bass drum both in location and tone. In Neptune, the chorus is securely in the back of the hall. After hearing this, no matter what your favorite performance of The Planets has been, this will certainly be your favourite recording.

Previnís tempos at first seem just slightly on the brisk side, but in fact he is actually slower than Boult 1953, my reference recording. Mars is particularly strong. The rhythm is sharply precise but always gripping, the low brass are rich, the timpani pitches are clearly distinguishable and very separate from the bass drum. On too many recordings the timpani and bass drum merge into a lumpy lurching growl. (Leonard Bernstein on Sony manages to get a particularly violent effect in Mars with some gross tempo changes, particularly in the finale. At the end one has the definite feeling something has been stomped to death.) The Venus might be a tad foursquare for some tastes (Karajan and the Vienna PO on an old Decca stereo recording achieve a tender sensuous sweetness here). Mercury and Jupiter go well. Boult 1953 achieves a more Elgarian grandeur in Jupiter without making the tambourines seem out of place. Although some may prefer a bit more organ, Previnís Saturn is supreme, overwhelming; I cannot hear it without breaking down. The xylophone in Uranus is very clear without being loud and again the timpani pitches are clearly distinct. Some may prefer a bit more organ. In Neptune the balances, especially the glockenspiel, the chorus and the harps, are perfect. Some conductors omit the harps presumably because they canít play precisely, evenly or softly enough. In some recordings (e.g. Boultís stereo Westminster go at it with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) you wish heíd omitted them. They sound like someone rattling dishes in the kitchen next door.

During a performance of The Planets with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Williams an incident dramatised how difficult to play are the percussion parts in Jupiter. During the movement the three percussionists had been jumping back and forth at the back of the orchestra grabbing one thing after another to make their cues. At the end of the movement two of the percussionists sank gratefully into their folding chairs while the third set off in a dead run toward the bass drum only to fumble and drop the stick. So, the conductor held the penultimate chord for what seemed like ten minutes while the humiliated man crawled on all fours under the music stands until he found the stick, placed himself at the drum and nodded at the conductor. Then they delivered the final coup perfectly together. The once distinguished Los Angeles Times music critic did not report this in his review because he held the music in such contempt that he skipped out on the concert early. When criticised for this, he responded with a two page outburst in the Sunday music supplement denouncing The Planets as an "ooze orgy" and suggesting that anyone who liked it was an illiterate imbecile fit only to watch Spielberg movies ó this from a man who had recently sat still all the way through a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor! It was his last appearance in the paper.

The Perfect Fool has never sounded so good. Egdon Heath comes off especially well in the higher resolution sound. The silences between the notes seem much deeper, the individual instruments so clear and real. The first time I played it, I had to hear it a second time straight through

Paul Shoemaker



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