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Dallas Space Spectacular
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)

The Planets (1918)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Rec (Zarathustra) 23-26 Jan 1997; (Planets) 18-21 Sept 1997, McDermott Hall, Dallas
DELOS DEL 3225 [2CDs: 34.23+48.55]

Andrew Litton is conductor who has established a strong reputation on either side of Atlantic, and this is the kind of repertoire in which he excels. The idea behind this advantageously priced 2CD set is clear enough in the title: ‘Dallas Space Spectacular’. These two pieces have their extra-musical associations, and they are also showpieces bound to give an orchestra the opportunity to shine. And shine is precisely what the Dallas musicians do.

At a total of not much more than 80 minutes, two discs can almost be regarded as an indulgence, only just beyond the time limitation of a single CD. The package is slimline but the design is gaudy, to say the least, although once the booklet is opened it is a model of propriety and clear presentation.

The same might be said also of Andrew Litton's performances. The general pacing and shaping of Also Sprach Zarathustra allows each section of the piece to evolve with a strong sense of its purpose in the larger scheme. Not that this is done at the expense of the sonic spectacular which this music can offer a virtuoso orchestra. The Delos recording sees to that, as the full-toned climax of the opening ‘sunrise’ reveals (Track 1: 1.00). But if anything the most impressive aspect of the sound is the atmospheric handling of the quieter passages. Strauss's score is notorious for its complex web of divided string textures, so it is particularly satisfying that the dark sinews of Von der Wissenschaft (Of Learning) emerge with such clarity but at a genuine pianissimo (Track 6: 0.00). If there is a criticism of the performance it probably lies in the other direction, that occasionally the last degree of fire and passion is lacking. However, in a major orchestral work the purpose of detail must be to serve the larger scheme, and judged on that premise Litton's performance is richly rewarding, as it has always been in the concert hall too.

With its seven distinctive movements The Planets covers a wide range of expression, and remains the best introduction to the rewards to be found in Holst's work. The opening movement, Mars, the Bringer of War, is tightly controlled at a logical and strict tempo, while the sheer intensity of the music emerges in the dynamic range, which is handled so capably by the recording engineers. The ending is uncompromisingly powerful, just as Holst intended (Track 1: 6.40).

Then the second movement, Venus, the Bringer of Peace, takes us to the other extreme: light, delicate, gentle. To some extent this music is so well written for the orchestra that its accurate delivery will ensure success; but there is more to it than that as the sequence proceeds, The Winged Messenger Mercury releasing Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, with Holst's most famous tune at its centre. However, the sternest tests confronting performers of this work are found in the later stages, in Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Litton balances these three movements particularly well, the inexorable pulse of Saturn, as the Bringer of Old Age, contrasting with the incisive rhythms that open up the different world of Uranus, the Magician. The obsessive motto rhythm of the latter makes a striking impression (Track 6: 0.00). At the end of this movement the music transforms as if to move us into another state, and the Mystic Neptune emerges. Played at pianissimo dynamic throughout, the requirement is of absolute concentration among both players and audience, until, half way through, the remote voices of the off-stage women's chorus take the music through to its close.

This is a well-shaped and most satisfying account of Holst's masterpiece, from a conductor who has performed the work many times in the concert hall. The balancing of power and atmosphere is admirably achieved, and if the two-disc package appeals, it will not disappoint.

Terry Barfoot

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