Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op.32 (1914-17) [49.43]
The Perfect Fool, Op.39: Ballet music (1922) [10.03]
Philharmonia Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 11-12 January 1988
NIMBUS NI 7076 [60.03]
At the time of the first performance of The Planets, Holst was suffering severely from the neuritis in his hands which plagued him all his life. Much of the actual writing out of the massive score had to be undertaken by his pupils at St Paul’s School under the composer’s supervision. As a result the score presented a considerable number of problems for performers because of missing dynamic markings although it is invariably clear what these should be. The score was newly edited by Colin Matthews and Imogen Holst in 1979 to supply these and to correct various other misprints in earlier editions. Even so The Planets is not a work that could ever be easy to play. It presents many problems not only of technique but also of balance to inexperienced players. One of these occurs almost immediately in Mars where Holst introduces a solo for the “tenor tuba” which is usually nowadays played on the euphonium. I suspect this to be a mistake; the euphonium, a brass band instrument approximating in that medium to the cello, is rather too soft-edged to make the right sort of impact. Karajan in his 1960 Vienna recording employed a tenor “Wagner tuba” which produced a more incisive effect but stood out from the orchestral balance uncomfortably at other points in the score; I do not know what instrument William Boughton uses here, but it sounds sharper-edged than a euphonium and is pretty well ideal. I suspect however that it may have been assisted by microphone placement, since later in the movement it recedes into the orchestral mix. Its duet with the trumpet towards the end (at 4.59) does not sound ideally matched. Also rather backwardly balanced is the Albert Hall organ which does not assert itself through the texture in the same way as in the superbly engineered and ideally balanced recording Charles Dutoit made in Montreal for Decca. Better that, I suppose, than the horribly electronic effect which Karajan achieved in his later Berlin recording for DG; considerably toned down in later re-masterings.
Boughton’s speed for Mars is nicely judged, not too hectic but with plenty of power; and one can for once clearly hear the col legno strings tapping away in the opening bars. This is a work which the Philharmonia could play in their sleep, and the technical difficulties pose no problems for them. The opening of Venus restores calm, with a poised horn solo provoking a dreamy response from the woodwind, and Bradley Cresswick produces a beautifully recessed violin solo at 2.08. This is indeed Venus as “the bringer of peace” and not the erotic goddess of love with which we are all too often presented. Perhaps the celesta at 7.50 could be more clearly audible and defined, but it is marked pianissimo in the score, and better that than an over-amplified sound. The same instrument comes through nicely in Mercury¸ which is taken at a steady speed which enables plenty of detail to be heard. Then again at 1.15 where its part is marked “solo” in the score, it does not balance either the flute which precedes it with the melody or the clarinet which follows. Here is a case where some discreet spotlighting really is needed. There is one passage at 2.34 (returning later) which never really comes off in performance – the strings and woodwind who have been playing a two-beat rhythm in 6/8 are suddenly instructed for two bars to play with a three-beat rhythm, indicated by forte accents. At Holst’s Vivace marking it is extremely difficult for the players to make this distinction clear, and the performance here succeeds no better than any others that I have heard.
Jupiter bustles along with plenty of jollity, but Boughton does not observe the ritenuto at 1.34 which Holst indicates as leading into the molto pesante tune on the horns – no more than do many of his rivals, including Sir Adrian Boult who gave the first performance. Oddly enough when this passage returns later on, Holst omits the ritenuto marking, and since the passages are otherwise identical one wonders whether the first marking might be a simple error which has remained uncorrected. Boughton treats the central ‘big tune’ as a country dance and not as a patriotic hymn, which is quite correct, but properly allows a slight broadening towards the end of the passage which is marked maestoso. When the tune occurs at the very end Holst indicates that a single crochet of the new speed should be the equivalent of a full bar of the previous one; Boughton observes this precisely, but many conductors make a further broadening to match Holst’s new tempo marking Lento maestoso – I think this is probably needed to give the ‘big tune’ is full breadth, but what Boughton does here is what Holst indicates.
The opening of Saturn is nicely poised, and for once the low bass oboe solo at 1.24 is properly piano as marked – it must be very difficult to achieve this dynamic level in the extreme low register of the instrument, and the Philharmonia player here does better than Dutoit’s rather more fruity oboist in Montreal. As the music rises to a climax, Holst marks the score Animato and indicates that the bells should be played “with metal striker”. In a footnote to the new edition of the score the player is advised to use a rawhide mallet “to avoid damaging the bells”. This is what we are given here although the sound is clearly not what the composer had in mind. Many conductors turn the Animato into a violent acceleration - Holst gives no metronome marks in his score, but in his very fast recorded performance of the movement as a whole does lend this interpretation some credence. Boughton here keeps the two tempi closely balanced, to the considerable advantage of the music. When the music dies down again the bells return, marked pianissimo and to be played with a “soft felt striker” – but here they recede too far into the background as a consequence. They are clearer even on Holst’s old 78s, although what we hear there does not sound at all like a “felt striker”. The organ pedal which underpins the music could also be more palpable. Dutoit in Montreal gets this passage just right, and the result makes more of what could otherwise be regarded as an over-extended “dying fall”.
The Albert Hall acoustic suits Uranus perfectly, with the timpani passages which can frequently be obscured in a halo of reverberation sounding ideally precise. The xylophone solo which is so often highlighted - with grotesque results in Adrian Boult’s 1954 reading - is properly balanced with the rest of the orchestra. The timpani could however be more defined at 2.49 (the part is marked “solo”) although they are better eleven bars later and thereafter. The notorious organ glissando at the catastrophic climax also blends into the background slightly too much, and the timpani solo at 4.40 is not really distinct enough either. The tempo of Neptune, shown as Andante in the score, is all too often taken by conductors to read Largo molto, but Boughton keeps the music flowing. However the recording here does not give any definition to Holst’s subtle orchestral effects; the tremolos in the highest register of the harps are almost inaudible and the subtle interplay of the harps with celesta and muted violins is more clearly evident in the superb engineering that Decca provide for Dutoit. Holst may have required that the orchestra should play pianissimo and with “dead tone” throughout, but he devoted considerable ingenuity to the provision of variety in the texture, and it would be nice to hear more of this. The unnamed chorus, set at a distance as Holst requires, could also be slightly more palpable, and their internal tuning sounds slightly insecure at the admittedly extremely difficult chromatic passage at 6.16. At the end they fade nicely if rather rapidly into the distance.
The coupling with the ballet music from The perfect fool is a well-conceived one, since the music of the two scores has much in common. This again is music that is not easy to play, but Boughton is nicely forthright in the Dance of the spirits of the earth even if the following Dance of the spirits of water could be more gracefully romantic and the final Dance of the spirits of fire is a bit brash. In the booklet note written in 1988 Geoffrey Crankshaw makes a plea for “some act of rescue” for the complete score of the opera – over twenty years later we are still waiting. At the time he was writing there had only been a BBC recording from the mid-1960s, where Imogen Holst had laid violent hands on the score, abridging some passages and introducing a spoken narration to clarify points of the plot. In her book on her father’s music she was very rude about the “intolerable” libretto (written by the composer) and Crankshaw also adduces the “poor” text as a reason for the score’s neglect. This really does the composer an injustice. Although at the time of its first performance critics suspected allegory, the plot is really a light-hearted satire on opera in general, and a very funny one at that. What it really requires is a production that takes the music extremely seriously, thus making the contrast between the vocal writing and the nonsensical words even funnier. The BBC recording of 1997 (currently available on the internet) did that, with the exception of the miscasting of Richard Suart - a very good comic baritone in the Savoy operas - in the central role of the Wizard, giving a G&S slant to music which really demands a Wagnerian singer in the Hunding/Hagen mould. Vernon Handley does take the score seriously, obtaining superb performances elsewhere and giving us every note of the score as Holst wrote it. Could somebody now please take another look at the score, giving us a properly high-class Verdian tenor for the Troubadour and a Wagnerian bass-baritone as the Traveller? Holst’s parodies of Verdi and Wagner are not only first-class satire, but are also uncomfortably convincing when they are given full weight.
There are a great many extremely good performances of The Planets in the catalogues – and this is an extremely good one. There are also a few which give us exactly this coupling with the Perfect fool ballet music, including a very good one by Sir Charles Mackerras with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; recordings by Solti and Mehta, both available coupled with Boult’s early 1960s Perfect fool, are rather superficial by comparison. The minor imperfections in balance - largely the result of the natural problems in Holst’s own scoring - in this Nimbus recording are not serious enough to prevent a strong endorsement for Boughton’s performance. On a purely personal level I stand by Dutoit’s Decca version, both for its more individual view on the score and its superlative if less natural engineering.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Minor imperfections in balance are not serious enough to prevent a strong endorsement for Boughton’s Planets.