The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 22 May 2009 in Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: September 2010
CD No: LPO – 0047
Duration: 43 minutes
This notably fine and ear-pricking traversal of Holst’s The Planets begins with a blistering account of ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, the rhythms hammered out, the London Philharmonic responding with virtuosity to Vladimir Jurowski’s dynamic direction.
At 43 minutes overall (several minutes less than the average), this is a rather unrelenting whole, fine in the up-tempo numbers or in the rapier lightness of ‘Mercury, the Winged Messenger’. In the slower numbers, one would like more expansiveness, something more ethereal, and indeed a rather quieter exposition. Yet with some sterling corporate and solo playing from the LPO this is a refreshing performance free from the ennui that can bog-down versions of music as familiar as this.
One has to wonder how much influence the composer’s own (second, 1926) recording of The Planets has been on Jurowski, for timings are similar, and with it comes the imponderable about Holst’s tempos being influenced by the restricted playing-times of 78-rpm shellac discs way back then. That ‘historic’ performance is of course mandatory to students of this music and, for example, can be found in an excellent transfer on Naxos 8.111048, coupled with Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting his Fourth Symphony. Jurowski has the benefit of better sound of course (although it’s not without failings, more anon) and also takes advantage of antiphonal violins, which no doubt the LSO of 1926 afforded Holst even if such a disposition was lost to monaural sound.
After ‘Mars’, ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’ lacks a still-centre under Jurowski’s leadership, for all the radiance of the playing, yet ‘Mercury’ is given a swift and brilliant performance, the playing precise and detailed, after which ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity lacks rotund fun, exhilarating quickness its substitute, the famous hymn-tune given without sentiment if still with emotional uplift. ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ lacks the ultimate in implacable tread if on a par with Holst himself tempo-wise, the music not as other-worldly or as momentous as it might be, a rapid heading to termination albeit by a searing and alarming climax (tubular bells rather lacking though). Perhaps not surprisingly ‘Uranus, the Magician’ is superb in its panache, Jurowski and the LPO at their most galumphing, dramatic and hedonistic, yet the organ glissando (at about 3’51”) goes for nothing, although the timpani outburst a minute later is thrilling. Finally ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ again has a rapidity that doesn’t quite convince, it’s too insistent and lacking mystery, the ladies’ voices at the close rather artificial-sounding, not distant or fading enough.
The recording for the most part is as vivid as the performance, although there is some congestion in the loudest and densest passages, with balances tending to favour the brass, trumpets especially, and with variable perspectives – sometimes this could well be the Royal Festival Hall, yet at other times attracting an ambience and remoteness that is less recognisable, as if the RFH was empty, if remaining very clear. Nevertheless, The Planets is a work difficult to bring off, once past the familiarity of it, and the LPO and Jurowski have taken a long look at the music and produced a vibrant and vigorous version, stunningly played.