The Planets Suite for orchestra, Op.32
Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra
Pluto The Renewer
Timothy Pooley (viola)
Ladies of the Hallé Choir
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: July 2001
CD No: HYPERION CDA67270
Duration: 75 minutes
With a plea of forgiveness for the pun, surely the firmament is in no need of extra planets? I am, of course, referring to recordings of Holst’s The Planets but, rest assured, despite the countless silver discs that brighten the night sky of this particular work, many more will be winging their way from the depths of record companies, shooting towards us like glittering asteroids hoping that they will be caught (for which read ’bought’) by avid record collectors.
Why, now, a sudden flurry of interest in an already beloved work? Quite simply the addition of another planet, some 70 years after its discovery. Lonely Pluto – our solar system’s outer-most member – was detected in 1930, four years before Holst’s death. As far as we know Holst expressed no interest in adding an eighth movement to his all-too popular suite. Indeed, he was rather ambivalent about the work’s success, feeling that it completely overshadowed his other music, which remains true today. Anyway, what had fascinated Holst about the planets was not their astronomical existence, but their astrological qualities. The discovery of Pluto has no real meaning to the art of reading our destinies: no one knew it was there!
However, after Anthony Payne’s masterly recreation of the sketches of Elgar’s Third Symphony, the ’completion’ of The Planets was a logical next step. Kent Nagano (then conductor of the Hallé Orchestra) approached Colin Matthews who, along with Holst’s daughter Imogen, had edited the critical edition of The Planets in the late 1970s. Seemingly, Nagano’s additional request for a movement depicting Earth was a planet too far, but Matthews agreed to attempt Pluto; the resultant orchestral miniature was premièred in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 11 May 2000. It has already been taken up around the world, and several new recordings of the ’complete’ work are in preparation. Full marks to Hyperion for stealing a march by recording the orchestra for which Matthews wrote the work, and with its new Music Director, Mark Elder. The recording sessions were in late March and, in trend-bucking fervour, this CD has been released just a few months later.
The competition for Holst’s seven planets is fierce; the question for the curious collector is whether 6’22” of Pluto is worth a full-price disc. The choice is perhaps made easier by including Holst’s late Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra, which is a real rarity in the catalogue; there’s only a Lyrita CD conducted by Imogen Holst (SRCD.223). Almost two minutes longer than Cecil Aronowitz and the ECO under Imogen Holst, Timothy Pooley produces a rapt and elegiac tone in state-of-the-art sound, with his Hallé colleagues mellifluous in support, albeit there is perhaps more air around the earlier, analogue, recording. Although there is no direct connection to the main work, it may help in alerting potential audiences to the fact that there are other works by Holst to enjoy.
As for Pluto, Matthews has created a distinctive and memorable movement, inspired by solar winds and the idea that Pluto is ‘the Renewer’. While steering clear of pastiche, he does create subliminal connections with Holst – there are two great war-like climaxes, where the underpinning rhythm is akin to the syncopated tramp accompanying Mars – while retaining his own sense of identity. The women’s chorus is retained for a held note at the end when all the other instruments have stopped. Whether this music will become the ’natural’ ending to the Suite, or remain an occasional novelty, only time will tell; if it helps to keep Holst’s music fresh in people’s minds then that is all to the good.
Holst’s The Planets is miraculous! Quite distinct from anything else, his music has unwittingly engendered every specially-composed science-fiction film score, whether it be battle-marches (Mars) or eerie, ’other-worldly’ sounds, which copy-cat Holst’s oscillating seconds in Saturn (perhaps that is why Kubrick opted for other classical works for “2001: A Space Odyssey”). We perhaps take The Planets for granted. Yet it is, in its own way, just as radical and experimental as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring from three years earlier (1913): Mark Elder and the Hallé never lose sight of that fact.
The dynamic range of this new recording is quite extraordinary, which may be the main drawback of the disc: trying to listen to it late at night, achieving the right volume to hear the quietest moments will wake the whole street in the loudest; yet, curiously, the women’s chorus seem a little too immediate on the first entry in Neptune. There is also a rather perfunctory end to Jupiter, where the final bars seem to suddenly lack any jollity, being rather straight-faced. Elder’s view of the work, which is alive to the intricacies and timbres of the score, easily offsets this cavil.
Elder, like most of his contemporaries, comes in at a typical timing of just under 50 minutes; Holst’s second recording, from 1926, with the London Symphony Orchestra is just over 40 minutes: EMI released this as part of its enterprising but short-lived series “Composers in Person ” (CDC 7 54837 2). Now deleted, as are other transfers, the composer’s 1923 recording is on Pearl (GEMMCD 9417).
Two more points. Hyperion provide, at the end of the disc, Neptune with its ’original ending’; Colin Matthews refers in the booklet that to segue Holst’s final movement into Pluto necessitated a slight change to Holst’s score – the addition of high-lying violins. If you want Holst’s Planets programme tracks 1 to 6 plus 10; the Holst/Matthews Planets is tracks 1-8.
The cover is an artist’s impression of Pluto and its moon Charon, which is rather dark and gloomy. I can only think of one Planets cover that could possibly be regarded as worse: Sir Georg Solti’s recording in Decca’s Ovation release, with its amateurish and pixilated representation of Saturn. After the initial rush of interest in this first release of Pluto, it may well be that other, more imaginative covers will ensure longer-lasting interest in the forthcoming plethora of competitors – an indictment of our cosmetic society, perhaps, but regrettably an important factor.