Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets – Suite for Orchestra H125 (Op.32) [52:06]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D (from Op.39) [6:30]
Ladies from the John McCarthy Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Mike Batt
rec. Watford Town Hall, 1993
GUILD GMCD7814 [59:14]
I seem to have heard quite a few versions of The Planets over the last three months. There's this version that enters with a rush from left-field but I have also been confronted with a couple of DVDs: the late Ken Russell's South Bank Show fantasy-visualisation against the background of Ormandy and the Philadelphia, and a version with David Atherton conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Atherton already has a strong track record with Holst's music (review ~ review ~ review ~ review).
Mike Batt is not a name we are accustomed to seeing; at least not in this context. His career in the music industry began in the 1960s. In the intervening years he more than won his spurs as a singer-songwriter, as a composer of musicals, film scores and orchestral music and as music director and recording producer. His 'signature' song is Bright Eyes for the film Watership Down, although how many people can name the composer? His association with the novelty Wombles group produced eight hit singles. He contributed lyrics to Phantom of the Opera as well as writing a 'pop' version of The Hunting of the Snark to contrast with the somewhat sterner setting by Douglas Young. His skilled arrangements have appeared on various albums, including one for Becky Taylor, and he was instrumental in the rise of Katie Melua. Intriguingly Batt lists among his favourite books two with overt musical links: one is Sounds and Scores by Henry Mancini ("The book I reach for most often as an orchestrator and composer … This is particularly good on big bands so, when I try to create the big Hollywood sound, I use Mancini") and A Handbook On The Technique of Conducting by Adrian C Boult ("I’ve been conducting since I was 18. It’s about how to get 100 players to come on a journey with you. You need to convey what you want with body language but you also need the baton technique which is where this book comes in handy."). Boult recorded The Planets at least three times commercially (review).
This is not an entirely new recording. Four of the Holst movements (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter) were issued as part of "Journey To The Stars", an instalment in 'The Magical Music Box' magazine produced by Marshall Cavendish in 1994. Now, to mark the centenary of the first performance of The Planets on 29 September 1918, here comes the complete recording. Batt directed the first recording of The Planets that was made, we are assured, with 24-bit digital technology by recording engineer Simon Rhodes of the Abbey Road Studios mobile unit. Robert Matthew-Walker - also a considerable composer - was the producer of that recording and wrote the substantial liner-notes for this disc. They are in English with French and German translations. The Planets may well have imprinted strongly on Batt since in 2001 he formed a classical cross-over band called "The Planets". They made their public debut supporting Deep Purple's 2002 UK tour and then issued an album called "Classical Graffiti". This was made up of original compositions and covers of well-known classical themes, all bearing Mike Batt's signature.
There have been so many recordings of Holst's Planets. Among the notables are the surprisingly under-powered Svetlanov and the eccentrically distended but intriguing 57-minute Bernard Herrmann. George Hurst's excellent Contour LP has not as yet made it to CD. Handley (Regis) is a brisk middle-of-the-road at 49:15. This compares with Holst's 42:35 (Naxos), Owain Arwel Hughes (Warner) 50:57, David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos) 50:00, Rattle at 51:12 on EMI and Sargent at 50:11. Beside these Batt and the RPO turn in an estimable performance and recording. There's plenty of detail, thunderous impact and atmosphere. Listen to his emphatically extended hammer-blows at the end of Mars, the minatory stalking and swaggering of Saturn and the no-nonsense foot-tapping celebrations of Jupiter. Batt's slow movements are lovingly done with much internalised dwelling on beauty. You can hear this in his sleepily voluptuous Venus, the spindrift waif that is Mercury and the impressionistic Uranus. As for the Scriabin-like mysteries of Neptune these are very well put across. That said, the fade-out of the women's voices at the very end seemed contrived and artificial. That was the only blemish in an otherwise fresh and unstodgy Planets.
Batt's version of Pomp and Circumstance No.1 is done with steady-as-she-goes dignity for the big tune. There's also swaggering encouragement to the brass. It shares the same virile full-on sound picture that we hear in The Planets.