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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 (1916) [50’57];
A Somerset Rhapsody Op. 21 (1906) [10’35]
Colin MATTHEWS (b. 1946)
Pluto, the Renewer (1999-2000) [5’52].
The Cambridge Singers;
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes.
Rec. Watford Coliseum on April 26th-27th, 2004. DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 61991-2 [68’54]


Owain Arwel Hughes’ performances with the Hallé when I was in Manchester, around 1980, were marked by reliability, a working rapport with the orchestra and evident enthusiasm. Here he brings another Pluto-appended Planets to the cheaper end of the CD market (budget price), bringing inevitable comparison with the super-budget Naxos issue (see my review). Where Naxos offered The Mystic Trumpeter, Warner adds the wonderful Somerset Rhapsody - more later.

Arwel Hughes’ Planets is good, but not excellent. The Royal Philharmonic, it must be stated, plays superbly. The recording could have a little more depth, as ‘Mars’ demonstrates perfectly; most impressive are the twisting, slithering lines in this movement, to which Hughes gives a distinctly ominous feel.

Just how much rehearsal did they have, I wonder?. The chord-balancing in the peaceful ‘Venus’ is slightly shoddy, but on the credit side here there is some very delicate and lovely string playing. The same question about rehearsal time is brought up by a careful ‘Mercury’, whose wings seem clipped on this occasion. Again, the opening of ‘Jupiter’ -the most popular movement? - sounds a little like a rehearsal speed, and horn ensemble at around the two-minute mark is ragged. Hughes gives the ‘big’ tune lots of space, but it lacks the grandeur that is its true due.

Perhaps the best planet is Saturn. Sounding distinctly elderly - a positive comment – the planet is, after all, the Bringer of Old Age - even here a more ominous tread would have been welcome. A light-footed ‘Uranus’ includes a passage that here reminded me of an analogous moment from Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’; the icy part around 4’40.

Neptune’s ladies are magnificent, leading to the more forbidding Matthews. Pluto brings icy coldness. Actually ‘Pluto’ sounds more Holstian than I remembered, although the raucous outbursts - nicely caught in this recording - are Matthews through and through.

The Somerset Rhapsody comes from Holst’s interest in English folk music. This well-crafted work emerges naturally in Hughes’ hands, the gorgeous end dying away into nothing. However, Boult on Lyrita (SRCD222, available exclusively from Harold Moores: remains without parallel in this work.

Despite some nicer moments it is difficult to recommend this Planets unless it is this particular pairing you are searching for.

Colin Clarke


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