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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, H125 Op. 32 (1914-16) [49:15]
St Paul's Suite, H118 Op. 29 (1913) [12:38]
Brook Green Suite (1933) [7:14]
Ambrosian Singers/John McCarthy
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth (Brook Green)
rec. St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, October 1993 (Planets; St Paul’s); CTS Studio, London, August 1994. DDD
originally issued in 1994 as Tring International CD TRP007
ALTO ALC 1013 [69:26]

An extremely fine Holst disc. Handley’s Planets ablaze with character and grippingly recorded, a big band St Paul’s, all generously coupled with the Wordsworth Brook Green.

Handley knows The Planets so well. This is evident even amid the myriad great and good who have recorded the work. Handley’s is a version that was well worth rescuing from Room 101 as Regis/Alto have done with other Tring originals. The refusal of players and conductor in 1993 to allow this to become an autopilot event is evident. Their dedication is aided by the recording which recalls full-blooded Decca standards of the early 1970s. Even quiet passages are given enough of a balance-nudge to bring them to the fore. This occasionally militates against the more mystical-spiritual writing especially in Neptune where the Ambrosians seems pretty close. Normally you might equate Neptune with the last of the Humbert Wolfe songs, the otherworldly Betelgeuse; not this time. That said, the real excesses of spotlighting are avoided. Right from the start the listener knows he is on to a good thing even if deep-down traffic rumbles add a tactful counterpoint in a few discreet passages. In Mars the quietly seething tam-tam passages are just masterly – like an evocation of the breath of some malign presence. The blackness of violent despair is unmistakably conveyed by the intentionally awful growling chords that end the movement. Venus is given a thoughtful rather than sensuous reading which convinced me that previously I had only ever overheard it. Both in Mars and Venus I realised how much Bax had been affected by The Planets in his Second Symphony which dates from the early 1920s. In Venus the lapidary scoring also recalls Delius at his most ecstatic. Jupiter is sturdy rather than overwhelming; if you want more then turn to Previn (EMI) who lets go where Handley holds it in, tightly buttoned. Holst himself had learnt much from study of Rimsky’s Sheherazade (1:43) never mind Dukas’s L’Apprenti Sorcier which can be heard elsewhere; not just in Uranus. The magnificent recording by Floating Earth is further affirmed in Saturn by the march at 1.50 forwards with the sonorous footfall of the basses recalling RVW’s Dona Nobis Pacem and Holst’s own spare setting of Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans. As that march becomes heavy with dread so the speakers fill the room with a wall of sound and deathly tolling. Even so, where the Boult (1979) and Previn (1974) make much of the horror-struck and panic-ridden climax of Saturn Handley pulls back. In this reading Uranus must, both in its syncopated exuberance and occasionally in its jaunty-macabre, have inspired Constant Lambert in his Horoscope and in Summer’s Last Will. The determined loose-limbed march at 3:05 is predictive of Bliss’s film score march for Things to Come.

This is a version of The Planets that is ablaze with character and should not be missed. Speaking of which I hope that some company will also pick up the original tapes of another almost lost Planets, this time by that stirringly imaginative yet neglected conductor, George Hurst. Hurst was, for years, a mainstay with the Bournemouth Symphony. He recorded the Holst suite with them and the Bournemouth Municipal Choir in Southampton Guildhall in 1974. It was issued on the budget Contour label as 2870-367 and then sank from view. No doubt it has been hampered by its analogue heritage but it was a very fine recording and interpretation which deserves revival every bit as much as Handley’s Planets. I lost track of the LP years ago but perhaps someone out there has it and a CD recorder? I would love to hear it again and I am sure many others would too.

As for the other two works, Handley’s St Paul’s Suite is a precise and sanguine ‘big band’ reading with ‘big band’ sound: plenty of visceral excitement. This is definitely for you if you find Imogen Holst and the ECO on Lyrita too dainty. The viola solo in the Intermezzo reaches forward to Holst’s Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra. There is also a dash or two of the North African exoticism (00.52) that may be more familiar from his magnificent Beni Mora suite. The Dargason finale makes joyous play with counterpoint that is so redolent of Frank Bridge’s Roger de Coverley. This performance positively hums with the sort of power that drove Norman Del Mar’s 1960s recording of the RVW Concerto Grosso with the Bournemouth Symphony (EMI Classics CDM 5 65130 2). Barry Wordsworth’s fine Brook Green is cut from similar cloth but here is done with great tenderness. The recording is warmer if more generalised and not as bitingly clear as the Tring original.

An extremely fine Holst disc, then. Handley’s Planets ablaze with character and grippingly recorded, a robust St Paul’s and all generously coupled with Wordsworth’s Brook Green.

Rob Barnett


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