Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst was a pupil of Stanford at the
Royal College of Music as was Holst’s great friend, Vaughan
Williams. Holst and Vaughan Williams often shared critical appraisals
of each other’s compositions.
In the manner of Bizet with Carmen; Parry with Jerusalem
and Bruch with the Violin Concerto No.1, Holst’s other works
have been eclipsed by the fabulous and enduring success of The
Planets, his seven movement suite for large orchestra. He
had been studying astrology and it became one of his passions.
For Holst each planet in the solar system had a certain character
which he attempted to depict in music. This was the inspiration
behind the composition. Holst stated, at the premiere, that,
“These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance
of the planets … there is no programme music in them.”
Following a private performance conducted by Adrian
Boult in 1918, The Planets eventually entered the
public arena under the baton of Albert Coates in 1920 at The
Queen's Hall, London.
In this much recorded work Jurowski’s interpretation is quicker
than most. However, Holst, conducting his own score with the
London Symphony Orchestra in 1926 (Naxos),
is even quicker than Jurowski.
Last month I attended the Musikfest Berlin 10 and heard Jurowski
and the LPO give a blistering account of Prokofiev’s Symphony
No. 3 (1928) at the Philharmonie. In view of this I rather expected
fast tempi from Jurowski.
Highly assured, Jurowski is a resolute interpreter delivering
magnificent power and brilliant colours. The martial character
of the opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War suggests
storm clouds gathering over Europe. Jurowski’s reading provides
an unremittingly biting attack redolent of a nightmare. The
LPO’s snarling and threatening brass and percussion are in superb
form. With the lilting rhythms of Venus, the Bringer of Peace
the LPO never linger yet manage to radiate love and passion.
Holst journeys into an impressionist sound-world for Mercury,
the Winged Messenger. With the woodwind in splendid form
the poetic atmosphere and the colours are vibrant. Repeated
hearings should negate any thoughts that Jurowski’s tempo is
too brisk. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, while sparkling
with life, acknowledges Holst’s love of English folksong
and the spirit of the country dance. Holst’s great friend the
composer George Butterworth was an enthusiastic
folk dancer; especially Morris dancing. Often I was reminded
how the folksong character of the movement could easily have
come from the pen of Vaughan Williams. Underlining the melody
and rhythm Jurowski benefits from lustrous strings and resonant
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age commences with uneasy
calm. In the middle section the music gains in weight and tension
rising to explosive power. Relief ensues with Saturn which
concludes in a mood of serenity. The splendid woodwind playing
here needs to be acknowledged. Brimming with elements of the
dance this interpretation of Uranus is a high-spirited
Scherzo with the magician depicted as an eccentric prankster.
Played totally pianissimo, Neptune, the Mystic links
with Mercury in its unadulterated impressionism. At the
conclusion the LPO choir of woman’s voices add to the ethereal
There are a large number of recordings of The Planets in
the catalogue. I don’t claim to have heard them all but I have
several in my collection. Serving as an Epilogue some versions
include Colin Matthews’ movement Pluto,
the Renewer (2000). One of the finest recordings
of The Planets is the evergreen 1986 Decca version from
the Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Dutoit for its luxuriant colours
and thrilling playing. From the early 1970s Previn
and the LSO made a thrilling live recording in the Kingsway
Hall, London. Recorded in 2002 at the Barbican, London, Sir
Colin Davis and the LSO provide a exhilarating and strongly
characterised version. I admire two versions from the Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra: both recorded in their Philharmonie
home. From 1981 there is Karajan’s richly coloured, if a touch
heavy, interpretation on DG.
The other version is Rattle’s reading with its slow-burning
intensity, recorded live in 2006 for EMI.
From 2001 David Lloyd-Jones with the Royal Scottish National
Orchestra offers a performance with many fine moments if some
uneven tempi on Naxos.
I recently heard Eliahu Inbal opining about the superb acoustics
of the Royal Festival Hall. Recorded in the same hall the excellent
sound quality on this LPO disc is cool and exceptionally clear
with an impressive balance. The intuitive Jurowski and the LPO
give a rip-roaring performance of The Planets that would
enhance any collection.