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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op.32
Women of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
rec. June 1986, St Eustache, Montreal, Canada
Presto CD
DECCA 476 1724 [52:54]

Emblazoned across the cover of this CD (available exclusively from Presto Classical) is the information that it won the Engineering and Production categories of the Gramophone Awards. Well might Decca boast this achievement, for this is a stunningly engineered disc, the sound is stupendous and the recording quality as good as it gets. The orchestral texture is vividly and brilliantly illuminated, with an astonishing level of detail and the ability to hear every single instrument perfectly placed within the sound scape. As an organist I have performed and recorded the organ part of The Planets numerous times, yet even I sit amazed at how powerfully and richly the organ integrates into the orchestral picture, with that infamous glissando in Uranus (around 4:13 for those that are interested) superbly balanced. The panoply of other “exotic” instruments – Bass Flute, Bass Oboe, as well as the two tubas and six timpani – is also magnificently captured in what stands as a truly outstanding piece of recorded sound.

The amazing thing is this was recorded in 1986 when digital recording was still very much in its infancy and the CD medium just three years in the marketplace. Technological advances have changed the whole concept of orchestral recording over the intervening decades and contemporary tastes may find this all a little too heavily engineered; after all, you never hear the sound in quite this detail in the concert hall. But this is still a fabulous recording and one which, more than any other, illustrates just how inspired an orchestrator Holst was when he put his mind to it.

The intervening decades have also brought a plethora of very fine interpretations of the work, and in sound which is more than acceptable. When Charles Dutoit’s recording appeared in 1987, I was not the only one who found it difficult to accept that a non-British conductor and orchestra might give us a Planets not only to equal Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra but to surpass it. Yet today Boult’s recordings, for all their historical significance (the original 1945 recording is available on a well-remastered Beulah CD), seem very strait-laced and reserved against Dutoit’s fiery and dramatic command. His control of the great dynamic hairpins in Saturn is hypnotically arresting, while nobody has quite, before or since, exuded such a sense of unfettered happiness in Jupiter. And as for the distant female voices in Neptune, even knowing the choral entry was on its way, I still find myself aghast that it has arrived so imperceptibly that I never noticed it until it had been sounding for several seconds.

Among today’s star recordings, only Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner Classics seriously eclipses Dutoit in brilliance and visionary intensity, but while Rattle’s 2006 recording may be the more impressive from an interpretative standpoint, I still prefer the engineering and production miracles of the 1986 Decca team as well as Dutoit’s dramatically-charged reading.

Marc Rochester

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