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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Suite, Op. 32 (1914-16) [42:35] 
Marching Song No. 2, from the two Songs Without Words, Op. 22 (1906) [03:16]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934) [29:51]
London Symphony Orchestra/composer (Holst)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/composer (RVW)
rec. June-October 1926 (Planets) and September 1929 (Marching Song), Columbia's Large Studio, Petty France, London; October 1937, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London (RVW).
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111048 [75:42]


I was delighted to receive another recording from The Naxos Historical Collection. This acclaimed series provides the listener with the opportunity to hear both legendary radio broadcasts and studio recordings from the most illustrious figures in 20th century music. On this issue entitled The Composers Conduct we are treated to vintage recordings from two late-Romantic English composers conducting their own works.
  
The renowned restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has successfully remastered pre-war American Columbia shellacs and US Victor Gold label pressings. Not too many years ago, owing to the likelihood of experiencing a primitive re-mastering, I would have actively avoided hearing old recordings such as this. Tremendous strides have now been made in this field thanks to recent technical advances and the restorative expertise of leading audio engineers such as: Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos and Michael J. Dutton for his company Dutton Laboratories.
 
In my personal CD collection there are many favourite works for which I have accumulated a large number of versions, both for reasons of pleasure and study. My exposure to these two English orchestral masterpieces has been very different as I have listened to only a small number of alternatives. In the early 1980s I purchased one vinyl recording of Holst’s The Planets and one of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4, performances that served me well for many years. My vinyl version of the Holst The Planets was James Loughran conducting the Hallé Orchestra, circa 1975, on Classics For Pleasure CFP 40243 and my vinyl copy of the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 had Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia, recorded in London in 1968, as part of a treasured 7 LP box set of the complete symphonies on EMI SLS 1547083.
 
Several years later I replaced my record player going over to compact disc and I replaced these two recordings with different versions. I recall that I bought my new CD version of the Holst The Planets as a result of a persuasive review of the acclaimed 1986 Montreal account from Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal on Decca 417 553-2. With regard to the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 I selected the acclaimed account from Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1991 in Liverpool, on EMI Classics for Pleasure 5 75310 2.      
 
I was so content with my digital versions of both scores that I felt no desire to replace them or add alternatives. In view of the age of this Naxos Historical issue I have decided not to provide comparative reviews and I will write my opinions on the Holt and Vaughan Williams conducting performances as I hear them.
 
It was in 1926 when Holst visited the large studio of Columbia Records in Petty France, London to conduct The Planets with the London Symphony Orchestra. In the opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War Holst employs a surprisingly swift pace providing a dark sense of foreboding. The brass, woodwind and string sections clash uncomfortably at times in the forte passages but the ear soon acclimatises to the sonics. It feels like Holst is about to lose his forward momentum at times in Venus, the Bringer of Peace and is about to come to a halt in the early section of this unsettling movement. In the second half of Venus the composer and his London players provide a welcome respite from the disconcertion with a convincing sense of calm and tranquillity. In Mercury, the Winged Messenger the orchestra communicate a sense of restlessness and disorder that was evocative of a bustling city railway station concourse. Holst and his players convey a prevailing mood of positive high spirits in Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity where the composer’s big tune is performed with impressive grandeur. With Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age Holst offers an unsettling picture of bleak and empty landscapes that I find evocative of images of the Great War such as an eerie hushed early morning on the Somme in the aftermath of a terrible battle. The movement Uranus, the Magician under the composer’s baton suggests a comical picture of sorcery that could quite easily have come from a Walt Disney film score. The final movement is Neptune, the Mystic where Holst and the LSO create an air of mystery through a shimmering mist.              
 
Holst with the London Symphony Orchestra also conducts the Marching Song No. 2, from his two Songs Without Words, Op. 22 from 1906. It is an inconsequential work that was recorded at the same sessions and used as a filler to the original disc of Mercury in 1929.
 
Vaughan Williams was aged sixty-five when he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this recording of the Symphony No. 4. The opening movement allegro is given a confident and committed reading where the music is gritty and uncompromising with a character of troubled frenetic activity. Although it is difficult to sense exactly what the composer had in mind when writing the andante moderato movement Vaughan Williams directs the orchestra with assurance drawing out playing that contains an eerie and mysterious character. The knotty and sinewy toughness of the agitated nature of the scherzo movement is very much to the fore. Unfortunately the brass here come across as tinny. The volume is cranked up in a thrilling reading of the complex Finale con epilogo fugato. Vigour and passion are the key elements and this works tremendously well. 
 
I wouldn’t take issue with the notes that accompany this release offering the viewpoint, “Although neither composer could claim to be a natural-born conductor, these landmark recordings … offer undimmed and thrilling recorded testaments.” I thoroughly enjoyed these fascinating and well performed interpretations and they contain a sound quality remarkable for their age. I certainly won’t be dispensing with my treasured digital versions but it is wonderful to have such amazing historical audio documents of two great English composers conducting one of their masterworks. Despite the obvious drawbacks resulting from the age of these recordings this was a release that I enjoyed from start to finish.
 
Michael Cookson
 
see also review by Jonathan Woolf

 



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