MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2023
Approaching 60,000 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             



alternatively AmazonUK   AmazonUS


Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra, Op. 32 (1916) [51.12]
Colin MATTHEWS (b.1946)
Pluto, the Renewer (2000) [6.12]
Kaija SAARIAHO (b.1952)
Asteroid 4179: Toutatis* (2006) [4.36]
Matthias PINTSCHER (b.1971)
Towards Osiris* (2006) [7.55]
Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b.1960)
Ceres* (2006) [6.40]
Brett DEAN (b.1961)
Komarov’s Fall* (2006) [7.49]
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Robin Gritton
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle;
rec. Philharmonie Hall, Berlin, Germany, 18 March 2006.
Notes in English.  Photo of Saturn. 
Enhanced CD video special: The Making of the Planets and Asteroids [10.28], directed by Paul Bates: computer animation
interviews with conductor and with the composers.
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 69690-2 2 (2) [57.24 + 37.27**]
Error processing SSI file
Comparison recordings:

The Planets: Atherton, Bernstein, Boult, Boult, Boult, Holst, Karajan, Karajan, Lloyd-Jones, Mehta, Previn, Sargent, Slatkin, Solti, Steinberg, Stokowski, Stokowski, Susskind.

Pluto: Atherton/BBCNOW

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
Venus   Karajan, VPO
Mercury   Boult, LPO (1954)
Jupiter   Boult, LPO (1954)
Saturn   Previn, LSO
Uranus   Boult, LPO (1954)
Neptune   Boult, LPO (1954)
Pluto   Atherton, BBCNOW

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 program. 

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.

Paul Shoemaker

*Commissioned by the Sir Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Pluto was commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra.
**Not 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 sign.

***** 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.


Return to Index

Error processing SSI file