The Planets Suite for large orchestra, Op.32
Pluto, the Renewer
Asteroid 4179: Toutatis
Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded at concerts between 15-18 March 2006 in the Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: EMI 3 69690 2
Duration: 84 minutes
Simon Rattle has recorded The Planets before, also for EMI, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. As I have not heard that version I cannot determine whether or not this Berlin account is superior – or otherwise – to it.
First of all, regarding this Berlin account, the recorded sound is very fine, full and warm with instruments captured ‘naturally’, without any evidence of ‘spotlighting’. A good balance is ensured throughout and this must be testament to Rattle’s preparation of the orchestra. But as to the interpretation itself, it is not the last word on Holst’s (to his annoyance) most popular work, one that is surprisingly difficult to ‘bring off’.
In terms of recordings of it, a firm overall recommendation is difficult to provide; one of the most consistently successful is from Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Philips, which has not, to my knowledge, been issued on CD in the UK.
Rattle and the Berliners provide a lush, sumptuous sonority which in ‘Mars’ threatens to make the music too ‘comfortable’ – I miss the sense of a dangerous, relentless war-machine and the concluding rallentando is too protracted and exaggerated. I would also have liked to sense more of the organ’s presence here and throughout. ‘Venus’ is serene and taken at a well-judged ‘adagio’, but I suspect the composer wanted a more restrained, ‘cooler’ sound, something less overtly luxurious than is provided here. There is some beautiful wind and solo string playing to savour, though. ‘Mercury’ is probably the most successful of the seven movements in this account: fleet-footed and colourful and with the climax not overly forceful. ‘Jupiter’ is made rather heavy weather of, from the opening string figuration onwards. The central hymn-like melody (later, indeed, turned into one – “I vow to thee, my country”) is lingered over, not to its benefit. With the reprise of the bucolic melody in 3/4 time, Rattle adds extra top Cs in the trumpets thereby negating Holst’s climactic use of that note in those instruments on the final chord which is attacked none too tidily. The weary trudge of ‘Saturn’ is well enough interpreted, if without the ultimate realisation of the music’s tragedy and subsequent transformation into resignation. ‘Uranus’ bounces along amiably, perhaps missing the sense of danger that lurks not far beneath. Rattle captures the elusive quality of ‘Neptune’, if not the sense of loneliness. He is aided by some superb choral singing.
I like Holst’s The Planets to end there – as the composer obviously intended. His mysterious conclusion is ruined when, as is becoming increasingly the case, Colin Matthews’s Pluto, the Renewer is appended to it. It is not a piece I particularly care for and is, also, stylistically at odds with Holst’s as deployed in The Planets. I was amused to note that one of the first melodic phrases is distinctly redolent of the theme music to “Captain Scarlet”!
Rattle’s dedication to the promotion of contemporary music cannot be faulted, and the four ‘musical asteroids’ which appear on the second disc were commissioned by Berliner Philharmoniker – most commendable. Oddly enough, Kaija Saariaho’s Asteroid 4179: Toutatis, with its Ligeti-like filigree, and Matthias Pintscher’s towards Osiris, featuring some Penderecki-like percussion, sound more reminiscent of the 1960s than anything more recent. I was quite struck by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Ceres, its conclusion with widely-spaced chords being most startling and effective. Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall seems more pertinently ‘space-like’ than the other ‘asteroids’ do. All are given committed performances, as far as one can tell without access to scores.
But Holst’s suite remains perennially fresh in a way which, perhaps, the companion-pieces presented here will not. As for an outright version for the library shelves, Boult’s last recording (EMI) and Solti (Decca) are strong contenders. Rattle’s followers will want this Berlin performance, and the new ‘satellites’ may prove an incentive for the curious as might an ‘enhanced element’ on the second CD, which I have not sampled, entitled “The Making of The Planets and Asteroids”, directed by Paul Bates.