Issued only now (September 2018), the long delay in it reaching the public is due not to any artistic failings but to behind the scenes business shenanigans at the time of recording. Guild to the rescue. And if Mike Batt conducting The Planets seems unlikely, then the man’s versatility – a lengthy CV of distinguished collaborations across a wide range of music, not just The Wombles – is perhaps something of a liability for his reputation.
The Planets already has a large discography, started nearly a century ago by the composer (twice) and Albert Coates (incomplete). No version that I know is totally satisfying, not even Sir Adrian’s five, although each is present-at-the-birth instructive (not least the first, 1945, BBCSO). Malcolm Sargent did an impressive one (1958, also BBC) and more-recently, late-80s/early-90s, Charles Groves and Vernon Handley respectively set down better-than-average planetary takes for obscure labels, both with the RPO, and maybe even further off the radar now.
It’s this orchestra that plays so well for Batt, well-rehearsed, too, to the extent that minimal editing was required (advises producer Robert Matthew-Walker) and, on the day, Simon Rhodes engineered some excellent sound – a natural perspective, good balance and plenty of sonic impact.
However, this release also engenders reservations, good/very good though it is. Although Batt clearly knows his way through (one of) Holst’s masterpieces, and the RPO’s response is committed and expert, following a powerful ‘Mars’ and suitably serene ‘Venus’ – both promising much – ‘Mercury’ could do with a slightly greater speed (delightfully articulate though it is) and a lighter touch to give less of an impression of the music’s wings being clipped, and ‘Jupiter’ is rather rotund, its central hymn somewhat square if stirring through its own nobility of utterance.
’Saturn’ is spot-on, however, as the Grim Reaper implacably plies his trade, alarm-bells flaring at the anguished mid-point, although I would have liked a little more of the horns’ hairpins at the close (Solti never-bettered here, and that was a concert, not quite replicated in his LPO recording for Decca). ‘Uranus’ too is well-judged in its malevolent galumphing, although the organ glissando, closely captured though it is, is conversely not clear enough, more an apparition.
Over fifty-two minutes or so, one becomes aware that while fortissimos and above are well-catered for, those that are quieter tend to be less-well accommodated, which may be a matter of post-production or reflect exactly Batt’s intentions. Either way it’s somewhat wearing, and the biggest loser is ‘Neptune’, which lacks mystery and distance, especially from the vocalists, a little too present from the off and not fading enough to nothingness at the end, more reaching a traffic-light red rather than disappearing into a black hole.
So, a Planets with much to recommend it, but some caveats, and my search for a perfect Planets goes on. Following ‘Neptune’ the Elgar crashes in rather too soon, and I wish it were No.4 (much better big tune!). Batt isn’t too literal with the “quick march” designation, an exact tempo in fact, if a bit solemn with what became ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.