The Planets: Atherton, Bernstein, Boult, Boult, Boult, Holst, Karajan, Karajan,
Lloyd-Jones, Mehta, Previn, Sargent, Slatkin, Solti, Steinberg,
Stokowski, Stokowski, Susskind.
This magnificent work –
The Planets - remains fresh forever and can be listened
to over and over without wearing out, comparable in this quality
only to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade***. Holst borrowed
generously from Beethoven, Haydn, Wagner, Debussy, Liszt, Bruckner,
Elgar, Sibelius and Rossini, merging these influences with consummate
skill to create a sense of grandeur and universality. This
is one of the earliest and most successful works to treat a
large orchestra as a collection of small ensembles, with percussion,
the harp, and certain repeated rhythmic figures unifying the
movements into the perception of a whole. Holst has captured
perfectly the fascination of astrology with its grand vision
of heavenly phenomena on the hugest scale mirrored in the everyday
activities of human beings.
This new recording, one
of the finest on CD, technically approaches the standard of
the (two channel) SACD in realism. Perhaps you remember from
a previous review my listing of my “dream Planets”:
Mars Bernstein, NYPO
Mercury Boult, LPO
Boult, LPO (1954)
Boult, LPO (1954)
Boult, LPO (1954)
Does Rattle displace any
of those? Not quite, although his Saturn, Uranus,
Neptune, and Pluto are excellent. On the first
hearing I found Rattle’s opening tempo in Uranus just
a trifle slow, but it soon became clear that this was just what
is required here.
Recorded sound is exemplary,
showing significant recent advances in original recording and
CD mastering techniques, and Rattle makes full use of the available
dynamic range, especially in Uranus where the famous
decrescendo truly goes from the painful to the barely
audible. However, I could have used just a trifle more deep
bass at a few spots. The brass and percussion sections are
spread out along the back of the orchestra which enlivens the
texture; this is done electronically, as the video shows the
orchestra in normal seating arrangement.
Six months after this recording
was made, the International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague
declared that Pluto is no longer to be classified as a “planet”.
Do we now have to remove Pluto from this list and never play
Colin Matthews’ piece again as one critic suggested? Certainly
not. In the first place, Holst was writing about astrology,
not astronomy, and whatever the IAU says would have no application.
Eminent British astrologer and father of modern astrology, Alan
Leo,**** provided Holst with the subtitles of the movements
from his book What is a Horoscope? Matthews studied
the astrological personality of Pluto before composing his work.
Secondly, I like the piece and think it works very well with
the other pieces.***** Clearly Rattle agrees with me, as he
took the initiative to commission the music of these several
asteroids to join Pluto.
Are these asteroid pieces
any good, good enough to become permanent members of our musical
solar system? Toutatis sounds a lot like Pluto,
but less mystical, more extroverted. Osiris is at once
startling in its daring use of orchestral sonority, and echoes
Pierre Henry, Pierre Boulez and Webern in its texture, with
more than a taste of Britten and Colin Matthews here and there.
It’s rather clamorous, actually; I don’t think Osiris would
be pleased; I wouldn’t want to be in Pintscher’s shoes when
he finally gets to the Land of the Du’at. Ceres is more
euphonious, opening with distant thunder suggesting the dual
role of the Goddess as Queen of the Underworld, as well as Bringer
of Spring signaled by polytonal brass fanfares and pregnant
winds. Alas, in the end duty calls; the Queen returns to her
dark realm and the drums of Winter are with us once again.
Komarov is a tribute
to Soviet Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov the first human to die
in space, upon re-entry from orbit in 1971, after whom the asteroid
#1,836 was consequently named. The piece begins very tentatively
with distant bird-like sounds which are intended to describe
the loneliness of space and suggest the sound of electronic
telemetry. It then moves far away from the valedictory mood
into a noisy, jazzy parody of Britten’s “Sunday Morning” which
rises to a roar, then fades abruptly to the silent sounds of
the opening of the piece.
All of these, including
Pluto, are definitely modern in texture and make no attempt
to reproduce Holst’s late-romantic tonal orchestral universe.
In order of their musical merit, I rate Pluto first,
followed by Ceres, Komarov, Osiris and
Toutatis. It is unlikely that they will all routinely
be added to The Planets, but the first couple just might
be heard often enough.
Disk two, an “enhanced
CD” plays the audio tracks normally on every CD player I tested
it on, including my notoriously touchy Emerson portable. A
DVD player sees this disk precisely as a CD and only plays the
audio tracks, not the video. Only if you have a computer with
a CD drive, and have Apple QuickTime installed, can you watch
the video. A DVD drive on your computer is not required. If,
like me, you find that Apple QuickTime behaves like a virus
on your Windows computer, you can download a specially de-fanged
version of QuickTime from a Russian hacker site. The video
track would not play at all on my 400 MHz Windows 98 Pentium
II computer - the notes say 500 MHz Pentium III or above is
required - but played easily on my 2.4GHz Windows 2000 computer.
Although I have autoplay turned off, the disk kept autoplaying
anyway, and didn’t want to be stopped. I recommend physically
removing it from your drive as soon as the program quits playing,
and you still may have to go into Task Manager to get rid of
The video program naturally
features a talking head of Sir Simon explaining that he discussed
the very first performance of The Planets with its creator
Sir Adrian Boult. He relates that the work is not well known
in Berlin although it is very popular throughout Scandinavia
and the English-speaking world. It was Rattle’s idea to commission
the four modern asteroid pieces, and each is introduced on video
by the composer, Ms. Saariaho by means of still photos and a
voice-over. All the composers — except Dean — said they were
reacting to the fear of asteroid collision even though in only
one case is the asteroid one that is at all likely to collide
with earth. The video track therefore erupted with computer
syntheses of stellar explosions and moving asteroids. Dean
said it was hearing a chilling recording of Komarov’s last words
broadcast from space that inspired him to write the tribute
to him, imagining in the lyrical middle section Komarov’s wife’s
unrecorded farewell over the radio just before her husband’s
orbiting capsule burned up. Like most “making of” documentaries,
I rate this as worth only a once-through, although I always
do like watching orchestras at work and we get a few brief clips
of the BPO working on Mars.
EMI is to be praised for
continuing to experiment with the DVD-Audio and Enhanced CD
formats and I hope they benefit from this in the marketplace
as they surely deserve to.
by the Sir Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pluto was commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra.
including video tracks.
*** Rimsky-Korsakov triumphed
by building on the balletic musical phrasing of Tchaikovsky
and the work “La Mer” by Glazunov, linking the motion of the
dancer’s body with the watery movement of the sea, as well as
his own operatic instincts. His own emotional involvement with
the oceans of the world derived from his experience in the Tsarist
Navy from which he was honorably retired.
**** William Frederick
Allan[sic], born Westminster, 7 August 1860, died Bude, 30 August
1917. Astrologers even in that enlightened age avoided using
their real names in public lest reprisals be taken against them.
Even so, Alan Leo was twice hauled into the dock for “fortune
telling,” once fined £25, but he persevered and we astrologers
today are in his debt. Not surprisingly, Leo was his rising
***** I often play the
“Sanctus” out of the Requiem by Duruflé, in the full
choral and orchestral version, as a Pluto when I play
The Planets for friends.