Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Beni Mora, Oriental Suite, Op. 29 No. 1, H 107 (1909/10) [16:50]
Japanese Suite, Op. 33, H 126 (1915) [11:33]
The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra, Op. 32, H 125 (1914-16) [49:40]
Manchester Chamber Choir
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 24-25 June 2010. DSD
CHANDOS HYBRID SACD CHSA5086 [78:24]
Also available as CHAN5086: download from theclassicalshop.net in mp3, lossless, 24-bit/96kHz and 24-bit surround sound. Pdf Booklet available with download.
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 Chandosís own site, theclassicalshop.net.
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 Warnerís Apex label (8573 890872). He has also made a number of other distinguished recordings of 20th-century British music, including Vaughan Williamsí Sixth Symphony (Apex 0927 495842, also in box set of VW symphonies), Elgarís Falstaff (Apex 2564 622002 Ė see review Ė and Lyrita SRCD-301 Ė see review and review) and Elgarís 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 Paulís suites (CHAN2026) at lower mid-price on CD or download or, without coupling, on Chandos Collect CHAN6633 (download only at super-budget price). Itís also included in Chandosís 30th-anniversary box Ė see review.
The fillers that I mentioned, Egdon Heath and the Brook Green and St Paulís 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 doesnít have the power which it really needs Ė itís just too slow to get underway.
For Beni Mora with Egdon Heath, Somerset Rhapsody, Hammersmith and Invocation, you canít 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 (SRCD.222). Unfortunately, I didnít have this to hand for comparison Ė itís 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 Ė competitive even with Boult on Lyrita Ė but The Planets only intermittently catch fire on the new recording. There are places where the understatement is effective Ė the unsentimental performance of the Ďbig tuneí in Jupiter mitigates unpleasant memories of the jingoistic words of the first verse of the hymn which has become indelibly attached to it Ė 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 Ė many still swear by his first, 1945, version, which subscribers can try on the Naxos Music Library. Itís also available on Beulah 2PD12 - see review by Christopher Howell. I havenít 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).
Itís to Boultís final stereo recording on HMV that most listeners will turn, most recently and least expensively reissued on EMI Masters 6317832 with Elgarís Enigma Variations for around six pounds or even less Ė 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 Boultís final version must be my ultimate recommendation. Three very inexpensive versions also possess real virtues: the Apex reissue of Andrew Davisís earlier recording mentioned above, Vernon Handley on Alto Ė ALC1013, Bargain of the Month: see review Ė and, for those wishing to hear Colin Matthewsí extension of the work with Pluto Ė alas, now downgraded to a mere planetoid Ė Mark Elder, reissued on Hyperionís super-budget label Helios CDH55350 Ė 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 Ė on which subject I must refer you back to Dan Morgan, who tried the 24-bit version.
Holstís Beni Mora, the result of a trip to Algeria in 1908, certainly does have an Oriental flavour, as the composerís 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 Ė 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 Ďairí around the notes. In other words, it all sounds a bit more dynamic.
Beni Mora is a deftly scored little piece that really does benefit from a detailed, high-res recording, so itís all the more disappointing that Davisís 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 Ė Song of the Fisherman doesnít sound particularly Japanese, nor indeed does the rest of the piece; still, itís 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 Ė Dance of the Wolves, this adds much-needed meat to an otherwise undernourished performance.
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 oneís enemies wouldnít 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 isnít as overwhelming as it should be, either. Venus fares a little better Ė those rocking figures as alluring as ever Ė but thatís not saying a great deal.
This is turning out to be a very strange performance indeed. Compared with Boultís last EMI version Ė or, for that matter, John Eliot Gardinerís for DG Ė this new Planets sounds too much like a run-through. Just listen to the start of Mercury Ė The Winged Messenger; not a lot of lift there. And thatís the nub of it; Davis persistently under-characterises these planetary portraits, robbing them of their distinctive personalities. Jupiter doesnít seem particularly jovial Ė certainly not at this ponderous pace Ė 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 doesnít efface memories of Sir Adrianís last Planets; as for Davisís Neptune, itís surprisingly clear-eyed, the wordless chorus not nearly as other-worldly as it should be.
Itís a fittingly prosaic finale to a very dull set of readings. Sonically this is not a bad recording, but it doesnít even come close to the dynamism and flair of Chandosí 24-bit/96kHz download of Casellaís Second Symphony (review). In any case, good sound doesnít count for much if the performances arenít up to scratch. And that, regrettably, is the case here. Very disappointing indeed.
Much better versions of The Planets are available, some at budget price, like Davisís own earlier recording.