I listened to this recording as a CD-quality download and Dan
Morgan chose the 24/96 download, the latter at least equivalent
to the stereo layer of the SACD, both from Chandos’s own site,
I had very high expectations for this new recording of Holst,
not least because Andrew Davis had already made a distinguished
recording of The Planets with the BBC Symphony Orchestra,
coupled with Egdon Heath, now available at super-budget
price on Warner’s Apex label (8573 890872). He has also made
a number of other distinguished recordings of 20th-century
British music, including Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony (Apex
0927 495842, also in box set of VW symphonies), Elgar’s Falstaff
(Apex 2564 622002 – see review
– and Lyrita SRCD-301 – see review
and Elgar’s Crown of India for Chandos (CHAN10570: Download
of the Month - see December 2009 Download
Roundup and review
by John France).
Then, too, Chandos already had a very decent pioneering recording
of The Planets from Sir Alexander Gibson, available on
An Introduction to Gustav Holst with the Brook Green
and St Paul’s suites (CHAN2026) at lower mid-price on
CD or download or, without coupling, on Chandos Collect CHAN6633
(download only at super-budget price). It’s also included in
Chandos’s 30th-anniversary box – see review.
The fillers that I mentioned, Egdon Heath and the Brook
Green and St Paul’s suites, appear on other discs
but Beni Mora and the Japanese Suite, especially
the latter, are much less readily available. All in all, I sat
down to listen all ears.
As the cover design reminds us, this recording had been scheduled
as second in a series intended for the late Richard Hickox.
He recorded The Planets very successfully for the budget
Pickwick label in 1987, reissued and re-coupled with the Moorside
Suite on Regis RRC1200 at super-budget price. I was however
disappointed with the new CD. That disappointment began with
Beni Mora, a work which relies on insistent rhythm in
order not to sound monotonous. Davis is not exactly guilty of
monotony, but the music doesn’t have the power which it really
needs – it’s just too slow to get underway.
For Beni Mora with Egdon Heath, Somerset Rhapsody,
Hammersmith and Invocation, you can’t do better
than the inexpensive Naxos recording which I recommended in
the May 2009 Download
Roundup, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (8.553696). Another
very fine recording of Beni Mora also includes the Japanese
Suite under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult on Lyrita
Unfortunately, I didn’t have this to hand for comparison – it’s
disappeared somewhere in my collection, no doubt to reappear
as soon as I send this review off. Both the Naxos and Lyrita
versions capture the momentum of the music without losing track
of its mystery, and both sound very well without the extreme
dynamic range of the new Chandos, where quiet passages are almost
inaudible at normal listening levels throughout.
This is just the sort of music that many will wish to play in
the car but the Chandos sounds least well in the context of
fighting road noise. I listened to the CD-quality lossless version
and thought it good, but really not much better than the older
Warner Apex recording or the early-digital Karajan, now on DG
Karajan Gold, though, sadly, with the gloriously tasteless organ
burst toned down in the new mix (439 0112).
I found the Japanese Suite the highlight of the programme
– competitive even with Boult on Lyrita – but The Planets
only intermittently catch fire on the new recording. There are
places where the understatement is effective – the unsentimental
performance of the ‘big tune’ in Jupiter mitigates unpleasant
memories of the jingoistic words of the first verse of the hymn
which has become indelibly attached to it – but I found the
overall effect underwhelming.
Someone coming to The Planets for the first time in this
version would not be ill-served by it, though they might wonder
if it was worth laying out as much as £19.99 for the 24-bit
surround version. They might also wonder why the work had become
so popular, a question which never arose from the recordings
by Boult and Sargent which were my introduction to the piece
and which pull out the stops a little further than Davis. There
are several recordings by Boult – many still swear by his first,
1945, version, which subscribers can try on the Naxos Music
Library. It’s also available on Beulah 2PD12 - see review
by Christopher Howell. I haven’t heard the Beulah transfer but
on the Radiex version from the Naxos Music Library the sound
is amazingly good for its age: download from classicsonline.com
for £4.99 (not available in the USA and several other countries).
It’s to Boult’s final stereo recording on HMV that most listeners
will turn, most recently and least expensively reissued on EMI
Masters 6317832 with Elgar’s Enigma Variations for around
six pounds or even less – see review
by Michael Cookson.
Of recording many Planets there is no end, as the MusicWeb
International index demonstrates. Very few of the available
versions are less than competent but Boult’s final version must
be my ultimate recommendation. Three very inexpensive versions
also possess real virtues: the Apex reissue of Andrew Davis’s
earlier recording mentioned above, Vernon Handley on Alto –
ALC1013, Bargain of the Month: see review
– and, for those wishing to hear Colin Matthews’ extension of
the work with Pluto – alas, now downgraded to a mere
planetoid – Mark Elder, reissued on Hyperion’s super-budget
label Helios CDH55350 – see review.
All these are less expensive than the new Chandos and are more
amenable to my view of The Planets, though none is available
on SACD or as a 24-bit download – on which subject I must refer
you back to Dan Morgan, who tried the 24-bit version.
and another view from Dan Morgan ...
Holst’s Beni Mora, the result of a trip to Algeria in
1908, certainly does have an Oriental flavour, as the composer’s
original title suggests. Those shimmering harp figures in the
first dance are beautifully recorded, as are the bass drum and
cymbals. So, this high-res download is very promising technically
– just listen to those ear-pricking timp taps in the second
dance. Chandos have recorded this music at a fairly low level,
but cranking up the volume does bring the orchestra into sharper
focus. This uplift also brings with it a better sense of the
‘air’ around the notes. In other words, it all sounds a bit
Beni Mora is a deftly scored little piece that really
does benefit from a detailed, high-res recording, so it’s all
the more disappointing that Davis’s version burns with such
a low flame. Which is also true of that other piece of orchestral
exoticism, the Japanese Suite. Written in the midst of
The Planets, its six short movements display the same
transparency of texture that we hear in Beni Mora, albeit
with a bit more heft. The Prelude – Song of the Fisherman doesn’t
sound particularly Japanese, nor indeed does the rest
of the piece; still, it’s attractive enough, and the BBC Philharmonic
play very well indeed. The upper strings sound especially silky
in the Interlude, but The Dance under the Cherry Tree is almost
inaudible at normal listening levels. As for the Finale – Dance
of the Wolves, this adds much-needed meat to an otherwise undernourished
Worthy fillers, but I suspect most audiophiles will gravitate
towards The Planets, which is surprisingly well-served
on SACD. Davis takes Mars at a fairly deliberate pace, and while
the sound is both vivid and detailed I longed for a bit more
momentum and menace here. Surely one’s enemies wouldn’t bat
an eyelid at this very subdued snare drum? To be fair, matters
improve as the movement progresses, but by then the battle is
already lost. Sonically Mars isn’t as overwhelming as it should
be, either. Venus fares a little better – those rocking figures
as alluring as ever – but that’s not saying a great deal.
This is turning out to be a very strange performance indeed.
Compared with Boult’s last EMI version – or, for that matter,
John Eliot Gardiner’s for DG – this new Planets sounds
too much like a run-through. Just listen to the start of Mercury
– The Winged Messenger; not a lot of lift there. And that’s
the nub of it; Davis persistently under-characterises these
planetary portraits, robbing them of their distinctive personalities.
Jupiter doesn’t seem particularly jovial – certainly not at
this ponderous pace – and how I miss the mystery, the sheer
frisson, that Boult brings to the start of Saturn and
Uranus respectively. Even that thundering organ chord doesn’t
efface memories of Sir Adrian’s last Planets; as for
Davis’s Neptune, it’s surprisingly clear-eyed, the wordless
chorus not nearly as other-worldly as it should be.
It’s a fittingly prosaic finale to a very dull set of readings.
Sonically this is not a bad recording, but it doesn’t even come
close to the dynamism and flair of Chandos’ 24-bit/96kHz download
of Casella’s Second Symphony (review).
In any case, good sound doesn’t count for much if the performances
aren’t up to scratch. And that, regrettably, is the case here.
Very disappointing indeed.
Masterwork Index: The