Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 (1914/16) [43:06]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 22 May 2009, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. DDD
LPO-0047 [43:06]

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 brass.

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 sound-world.

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.

Michael Cookson

A rip-roaring performance that would enhance any collection.