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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets - Suite for large orchestra (1914-16) [50:45]
The Perfect Fool - ballet music Op.39 (1923) [10:39]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 2015, The Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, USA
SACD 5.1 & stereo/CD stereo

I had very high hopes for this recording. Reference Recordings consistently produce fine discs and a SACD (5.1 & Stereo) engineered performance from them of this repertoire seemed certain to be a compelling listen. Unfortunately, I have been left nearly completely unmoved and almost underwhelmed by what I have heard. My system is a SACD stereo set up so perhaps I have missed the nuances and control of the aural space a 5.1 arrangement would afford. The recording venue is the orchestra's home - the Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City. I do not know this at all as a location so I had a quick look online and it is a magnificent oval 1600-seater with the orchestral platform thrusting out into the main auditorium and no seat more than 100 feet from the platform. Strangely, on this new recording the resonance seems to overwhelm much of the detail particularly when the orchestra plays with any degree of dynamic heft. 

Even if I find the recorded sound to be not as incisive as I would like, my main issue with this disc is the interpretation and the style of the orchestral playing. Emotionally cool is the most succinct description. Given - as mentioned in the liner - that Holst described the work as "a series of mood pictures", this detachment will align itself better with some of the movements than others. Hence Venus the Bringer of Peace or Neptune the Mystic - the latter with a very effectively distant and ethereal female chorus - work well, but the downside is that the 'big' movements generate almost no tension, drama or excitement. Mars, the Bringer of War opens well. I prefer a steadier tempo, as here where the insistent 5/4 rhythm rolls inexorably along as five beats as opposed to a quicker feeling that tips into a swaying 3+2 dance. Solti's LPO/Decca recording is a prime culprit there. The slower tempo gives the music an inexorable tramping power that defines the aforementioned "mood" so well. Another plus on this new disc: the engineering captures the wooden clicking clatter of the strings' 'col legno' marking as well as any I have heard. 

But then the performance simply refuses to build. The excellence of the playing is a given - neat, precise, articulate. Not as superhumanly brilliant as my most recent encounter with another Reference disc - the Pittsburgh SO playing Bruckner - but much better than the famously fallible New Philharmonia for Boult's 4th recording in the 60's. Ah, but listen to that Boult - in one iteration coupled with Previn's LSO who blaze their way through The Perfect Fool (hence the comparison here) - and you will hear a performance that pushes the theatre of this work to the limit. The low brass glower and grimace, the strings skitter in fear, the wind howl like Wilfred Owen's "shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells". Here in Kansas there is a kind of emotional complacency that makes it more of Mars, the bringer of a bit of a falling out. For me, it needs to sound as if at the climax of this movement - and indeed elsewhere in the suite too - the music and the players are teetering on the edge of emotional and technical catastrophe - this is too controlled, too contained. At one point it reminded me of the last rehearsal before a big concert where a conductor will tell players to 'mark' big passages and save their energies for later.

None of Stern's tempi or interpretative choices is particularly unusual. In comparison to many other standard recordings, he might be a bit quicker here or slower there. The one 'choice' he does make - the lumbering tempo of the "I vow to thee" big tune in Jupiter - is wrong. Too slow, too weighed down. This is meant to be an uplifting, inspiring sinew-tightening theme - not so here. Both in the ostinati of Mars and the densely scored climaxes of Jupiter where Holst introduces two sets of timpani, the acoustic blurs on this recording so that the inner detail struggles to register. Likewise, in Jupiter, Holst writes some thrilling rolling arpeggiated figures for the six horns - all but inaudible here. For an example of the lack of the bright-eyed energy listen to the very opening of this movement. The strings should chase after each other with exuberant glee - here we get a good neat exercise in ensemble arpeggios - the titular jollity quite absent.

More disappointments follow; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age has a good basic tempo - again one that allows the menace implicit in the music to register. At the climax Holst marks the full orchestra playing fff but a detail I always love to hear is the tubular bells syncopating against most of the rest of the ensemble marked "with metal striker" that should sound like some hysterical tocsin. Here they are barely audible yet in the post-climactic rubble when the same instrument is pp "with felt striker" they stand out clearly. More issues of balance and a lack of drama dominate Uranus the Magician as well. The timpani are not as crisp or indeed dynamic as they need to be. The pedals of the hall's impressive organ underpin the orchestral texture powerfully but then the famous fuse-blowing glissando on that instrument that marks the entire work's final convulsive climax again barely registers. Interpretatively this movement is another major disappointment - where is the malicious glee, the malevolent caprice? As mentioned, Neptune is suitably remote but that is too little too late; an underwhelming performance in every respect.

The Perfect Fool ballet music receives a reasonable performance - this might be the first time on SACD - but in direct comparison to older versions it lacks bite and individuality. Previn's LSO trombones are thrilling in their opening gesture and listen to how his timpani bring menace and dynamism to yet another Holstian ostinato. Boult's famous Decca recording - once a demonstration disc recorded in the Kingsway Hall with Kenneth Wilkinson engineering back in the early 60's - is also infinitely preferable as a performance. This latter version appears as the coupling for Solti's Planets - there are quite a few contentious moments in that performance too but at least it sounds dynamic. If collectors are hankering after a brand new SACD Planets look no further than the very recent Andrew Litton/Bergen recording on BIS. I have heard that performance - coupled with a good Enigma Variations - in its 24-bit studio master download and it is very good indeed, both musically and technically. It would not displace my all-time favourites at the top of the Planet-pile but it is in a different league to the performance under consideration here.

Reference Recording's presentation is up to their usual high standard although I would have preferred more detail about the music than eight pages devoted to the performers and one to the artist of the cover painting. A rare miss for Reference.

Nick Barnard