There are currently almost fifty complete recordings
of The Planets, and numerous others of separate movements of
the work in concert recordings listed in the R.E.D. catalogue. A few
years ago when I was a regular reviewer specialising in British music,
I became so exasperated with having to review so many different recordings
of this work, that I pleaded for the record companies to look beyond
The Planets and see, for instance, The Cloud Messenger
or The Mystic Trumpeter. So I am delighted to welcome, in celebration
of Naxos’s fifteenth birthday, a Holst recording that puts The Planets
into another dimension in the recordings galaxy. Add to this surround
sound and Colin Matthews’ ‘Pluto’ pendant as well as The Mystic Trumpeter
of which there is no current recording listed in the catalogues.
I had the opportunity of hearing the climax of this
recording of The Mystic Trumpeter at a Naxos fifteenth birthday
event in London, this week (4 March 2002) played back on some excellent
surround sound equipment. It sounded breathtaking. It sounded pretty
good on my more modest Sony TV surround sound system too! The Mystic
Trumpeter is an early Holst work dating from 1904 and the influence
of Wagner is strong. But typical Holst fingerprints are already discernible
and there are even pre-echoes of The Planets. Needless to say
the writing for brass is confident and assertive in this setting of
the Walt Whitman poem that celebrates the role of the trumpeter in pronouncing
war, marking death and subjugation, and sending the spirit flying in
love and joy; and Holst grasps every colouristic and expressive opportunity.
Soprano Claire Rutter rises to the work's challenges confidently, strongly
projecting Whitman’s stirring proclamations over the might of the orchestra.
Colin Matthews’ Pluto is a seamless addition
to Holst’s Planets and it is a fitting appendix. It will be recalled
that the planet Pluto was only discovered a few years before Holst died
and after he had completed his composition in 1917. Matthews alludes
to and embellishes material heard earlier, notably from ‘Mars’, for
his fierce climaxes. The work ends with a chord from the ladies chorus
– although it seemed to die away too soon?
David Lloyd-Jones conducts a very creditable performance
of The Planets that can rank with some of the best in the long
and auspicious list of recordings in the catalogue. The sound engineering
is quite remarkable. ‘Mars’ reaches right out at you and grips you with
its drama and violence and Venus, spacious, shimmers in cold yet sweet
Congratulations to Naxos on fifteen years of splendid
achievement. This birthday release in awesome sound is a confident recommendation
not least for the inclusion of a thrilling rendition of the early Wagner-inspired
The Mystic Trumpeter.
Ian Lace and Grace Lace
Colin Clarke also attended and has listened
- but he hears things differently!
Here is Naxos’s answer to Mark Elder and the Hallé
Orchestra’s account of The Planets with Colin Matthews’ Pluto
on Hyperion CDA67270. There is certainly little doubt that Naxos cannot
match the Keener/Faulkner engineering team: Hyperion has long held esteem
in this area, and they need fear no competition here. That the Naxos
recording’s range is wide is not in question, but it does seem to be
that bit too wide: if indeed one is to hear the opening of ‘Mars’
and leave the volume control unattended, I can only hope for benevolent
neighbours!. Perhaps the interpretative problem with this Bringer of
War is his strategy: too fast a basic pulse means an unrelenting battering,
not an ominous and inevitable demise.
There is much to admire in the orchestral playing later,
though: ‘Saturn’ is well sustained, and despite the lack of a certain
amount of swagger, ‘Uranus’ becomes impressive later on because of Lloyd-Jones’s
intent on bringing out Holst’s wilder side. Listen also to the delicate,
silken (rather than thin) violins in ‘Venus’.
The chorus is integral to ‘Neptune’ (Holst’s last completed
movement for ‘his’ solar system) and here the Chorus of the Royal Scottish
National Orchestra appears strained. Indeed, so does the orchestra,
which remains too literal: the (essential) mystic side of Holst is missing.
So to the possibly contentious ‘final’ movement, ‘Pluto’
by Colin Matthews. The listener is plunged in to an immediately and
recognisably different world (if you’ll pardon the pun). This Pluto
is, appropriately, icier and more inhospitable: Matthews is able (possibly
by chronological placement) to enter into more forbidding terrain than
Holst. The sudden (re-entry of the chorus at the end makes a textural
link back to the original (why only on the fourth listening does it
sounds contrived to this reviewer?), but not before Matthews’ own, dramatic
and more modern language has made itself felt at the climaxes. There
appears to be an ominous, ‘Mars-like’ rumbling present, just below the
surface: all planets are, after all, part of the same solar system and
are therefore inextricably linked.
The coupling on this Naxos disc is The Mystic Trumpeter,
a 1904 setting of (most of) a poem by Walt Whitman. If you would like
to compare Holst’s selected text with the complete original, http://www.bartleby.com/142/249.html
reprints to whole poem. Claire Rutter, the soprano soloist, bravely
takes the piece on and emerges, if not triumphant, certainly impressively.
The main problem seems to be that she cannot engage with the ecstatic,
exultant, youthful Holst (the orchestra under Lloyd-Jones are much more
successful in this). Her voice tends towards the shrill above forte,
a shame as there is so much to admire elsewhere: the real arrival-point
within piano at the word ‘Paradise’; the way she can float a
high note. I for one would have been happier with a less piercing exultation
of Love (lines 39-42 of the original poem, 24-27 of Holst’s text) and
more security from the high violins in the final meditation on Joy,
but nevertheless this emerges as an impressive achievement.
Recommended then, if only to hear The Mystic Trumpeter
within easy reaching distance of Matthews’ Pluto.