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Universe of Sound
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets
Joby TALBOT (b. 1971)
Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. The Colosseum, Watford, 2012
Bonus features: ‘Making of’ documentary; Listening guide films for each planet; Audio commentaries from Esa-Pekka Salonen and principal players of the Philharmonia
Region Code 0 (worldwide); Picture Format 16:9. Sound format: PCM Stereo; Dolby 5.1; DTS 5.1

If you follow my example and play the performance of The Planets straightaway you may wonder what all the fuss is about and why this DVD carries the title ‘Universe of Sound’ since what you will see is a straightforward studio performance of Holst’s music, albeit one filmed from many angles. My strong advice would be to watch the ‘Making of’ feature first.
From this short and interesting film you will learn that the performance is the musical core of a joint venture between The Philharmonia and the Science Museum in London. The venture was part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, linked to the London Olympics. In essence the idea was to create an interactive sound and vision installation, allowing visitors to see on film a full symphony orchestra playing Holst’s great orchestral score. By using multi-screen techniques the film makers intended that viewers could get ‘up close and personal’ with conductor and orchestra, almost viewing the performance from the inside. More information about the project can be found on the Universe of Sound website, where the documentary film can also be viewed.
No fewer than 37 cameras were used to film the performance and there’s no doubt that the makers have managed to convey an excellent and often striking impression of the performance as it unfolds. The only mild criticism I have is that the camera-work is a bit ‘busy’ in that they never seem to rest on a player or group of players for more than a few seconds. However, the director’s shot selection is intelligent; the player or players in shot at any one time are relevant to what we’re hearing. I have to say this struck me as a most imaginative example of ‘outreach’ to a wider audience.
As for the performance itself, it’s a good one, including a powerful account of ‘Mars’ and a reading of ‘Venus’ that brings out all the subtle pastel shadings. Salonen keeps the tempo rock-steady in ‘Mercury’; you may feel that the speed is just a fraction too steady but, by compensation, the transparent, light textures are realised clearly. The opening of ‘Saturn’ is somewhat forbidding. For my taste Salonen is just a little brisk in the central processional but there’s no doubt that the great climax is towering. ‘Uranus’ is exciting and the mysterious washes of sound in ‘Neptune’ are well done. The female chorus was separately recorded in a London church; their contribution is well integrated. The organ was also recorded separately – in Symphony Hall, Birmingham – but, to be honest, I didn’t think that the organ part really registered very strongly.
It seems to have become fashionable in recent years to get composers to write pieces to follow ‘Neptune’. Joby Talbot is the latest. His Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity – the title is, apparently, a quotation from Byron – follows ‘Neptune’ without a break, the ladies chorus forming the bridge, as it were. It’s scored for similar forces to the Holst - except that, perhaps predictably, the percussion section is significantly expanded. The piece lasts about seven minutes, making a lot of play with restless, energetic rhythms. It’s inoffensive enough but, to me, it didn’t add anything to Holst’s score and I wouldn’t count it a great loss if I didn’t hear it again. Perhaps it makes more effect as part of the Universe of Sound installation.
The DVD also features player commentaries on each movement of the Holst. I was surprised how extensive these commentaries are. In essence five Philharmonia players are heard in conversation throughout each of the seven complete movements. Their conversation is interesting but it’s rather a long feature. There’s also a separate feature which gives a listener’s guide to each movement.
For someone who doesn’t know The Planets or who is interested in a close-up view of the modern symphony orchestra in action this is a useful package. The Universe of Sound installation can be experienced in Birmingham between 25 May and 16 June – admission is free and there’s more information here.
John Quinn