ICA Classics – Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducts Holst’s The Planets and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

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The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34

Ladies of the BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky

Holst recorded 12 March 1980 in Royal Festival Hall, London; Britten on 1 June 1981 in Festival Hall, Osaka, Japan

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: January 2012
Duration: 68 minutes



Two classics of English music conducted by the super-versatile, unclassifiable Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (born 1931), his conducting exploits seemingly open to anything and everything. The word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t begin to do him justice.

The Planets receives a charismatic performance. The warring ‘Mars’ is full of drama and personality, motifs hammered out with fierce-sounding fortissimos. Following is the celestial ‘Venus’, languorous in tempo, sensitively played: this is a very inviting and peaceful place. ‘Mercury’ is here a remarkably nifty ‘winged messenger’. The BBC Symphony Orchestra negotiates its then Chief Conductor’s demands with technical alacrity and rapier clarity (even in an acoustic that sounds more Royal Albert Hall than the stated Royal Festival Hall). ‘Jupiter’ receives a humpty-dumpty reading, plump but proud, the hymn-tune noble and moving, Rozhdestvensky nattily integrating it into its ebullient surrounds. The spectre of death informs ‘Saturn’, the opening two-note motif bringing us an image of the Grim Reaper, his tread implacable, although Rozhdestvensky rather rushes the climax, and the alarm-raising tubular bells are scarcely audible. The numbed coda is effective though, radiantly accepting. ‘Uranus’ is an exuberant if dangerous dance of magical spells that giddies to an organ-led climax, save this instrument’s famous glissando isn’t as prevalent as ideal (it’s ‘just’ there if you know about it). Finally, the icy remoteness of ‘Neptune’, the ladies of the chorus ideally siren-like, calling from afar, entrancing us to go backstage with them to (well-managed) nothingness, and to at-least-some silence before applause.

Interpretatively, this is a compelling account of The Planets, ubiquitous music notorious to get right. Rozhdestvensky gets closer than some colleagues. The recording (whether at-source or through re-mastering) finds a front-to-back depth, distance and halo of reverberation that the Royal Festival Hall has never had; one misses the place’s immediacy and analytical clarity even if the sound as such is decent enough if not the clearest or most dynamic.

More-tangible and -lucid sonic qualities are welcomingly found in Benjamin Britten’s Purcell Variations and Fugue, as Young Person’s Guide is correctly known when without the orchestra-introducing narrator. This is a very likeable account, full of delicious details and well-turned solo contributions, the BBCSO ‘playing away’ in Osaka: somehow one can ‘see’ the magnetic Rozhdestvensky nodding, smiling and baton-twirling his way through this ingenious work. When we reach the ‘Fugue’ – the orchestra put back together – he sets a spanking pace: as for ‘Mercury’ the BBC musicians are up to and relish the challenge; the work closes with Purcellian splendour and Brittenesque banter. A release well-worth having.

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