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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets Op.32 [52:44]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D Op.39 [6:30]
Ladies of the John McCarthy Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Mike Batt
rec. Watford Town Hall, 25 August 1993
GUILD GMCD7814 [59:14]

This Guild CD has been released to mark the centenary of the first performance of Holst’s The Planets on 29th September 1918. It was also the first recording of The Planets to be made with 24-bit digital technology by the Abbey Road Studios mobile unit, but it has lain in the vaults since it was made in one day in 1993. Excerpts from this recording could originally to be heard in a series of children’s magazines and CDs called The Magic Music Box published by Marshall Cavendish in 1993. The Planets appeared in an issue of the series called Journey to the Stars. I’m not sure why this full release has been delayed for an astonishing 25 years.

Mike Batt is a very fine multi-talented musician but it may come as something of a surprise to many to hear him conducting The Planets. The Royal Philharmonic clearly warms to him with some fabulously committed playing. By all accounts minimal editing was required for a session that took a single day. Incidentally, Vernon Handley’s superb version (still a top recommendation) with the same orchestra was recorded just a few weeks later in October 1993.

Mars is very spectacular and it has to be said that the sound engineer Simon Rhodes produces a demonstration worthy-recording with impact, clarity and splendid balance. The tempo is brisk and all that is missing is an element of hushed foreboding in the quiet, menacing passages. Venus is serene and well-paced with a beautifully ecstatic climax from the strings. Mike Batt seems to favour romanticism here rather than coolness but it is very effective in its own way. Mercury is finely detailed and marvellously articulated but isn’t quite mercurial enough. Maybe it’s the tempo that is slightly too slow or perhaps the winds and strings should have been encouraged to play shorter notes. It’s good but it’s a marginal miss compared to the top versions. Jupiter springs to life with some stunning horn playing (and recording) but then it drags slightly until Batt whips up the orchestra again just before the famous central tune. The melody is despatched with nobility and dignity. Saturn is the highlight of the set so far with the grimness well and truly brought out, aided by some terrific dynamic contrasts in the playing. The stillness of the opening and closing passages is admirable. Uranus is full of fun and magic with yet more spirited playing from the RPO, including thrilling horns and suitably present timps. The climax is overwhelming with a rather loud organ glissando. There is nothing wrong with Neptune until the entry of the chorus. It’s a great shame that they are so poorly out of tune, enough to ruin what should be a serene ending. Also, there is a slight black mark for the engineer - the chorus is chopped off at the end even though they are singing very softly. This is a minor issue but the effect should have been handled more proficiently. Pomp and Circumstance No.1 never really fails and it doesn’t here. Batt does pull it around slightly but he certainly gives us a rousing version.

In summary this is a very good rather than outstanding CD of The Planets. There is much to enjoy and very little to criticise. Anyone buying the disc will not be disappointed. I hope people don’t think of The Wombles as soon as they see the sleeve. There’s much more to Mike Batt than his furry friends and he should be applauded for what he has achieved here. There’s some magnificent playing and stunning sound too.

John Whitmore

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Michael Greenhalgh