Holst 'The Planets'

Of the many recordings of Holst’s brilliantly orchestrated showpiece, this provides a particularly devastating combination of players, conductor, acoustic and recording technique. Recorded in the superb, vast acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall in London, every nuance of colour can be appreciated along with a vivid feeling of being in a 3-dimensional space. It is a perfect setting both for the chilling, dramatic temperament of Mars or Saturn, or the unearthly sound of Neptune, the Mystic. Building on his special affinity for English repertoire, William Boughton brings immense energy and brilliant new perspectives to these works in fine performances by the Philharmonia Orchestra.


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Boughton’s speed for Mars is nicely judged, not too hectic but with plenty of power; and one can for once clearly hear the col legno strings tapping away in the opening bars. This is a work which the Philharmonia could play in their sleep, and the technical difficulties pose no problems for them. The opening of Venus restores calm, with a poised horn solo provoking a dreamy response from the woodwind, and Bradley Cresswick produces a beautifully recessed violin solo at 2.08. This is indeed Venus as “the bringer of peace” and not the erotic goddess of love with which we are all too often presented. Perhaps the celesta at 7.50 could be more clearly audible and defined, but it is marked pianissimo in the score, and better that than an over-amplified sound. The same instrument comes through nicely in Mercury¸ which is taken at a steady speed which enables plenty of detail to be heard. Then again at 1.15 where its part is marked “solo” in the score, it does not balance either the flute which precedes it with the melody or the clarinet which follows.

The opening of Saturn is nicely poised, and for once the low bass oboe solo at 1.24 is properly piano as marked – it must be very difficult to achieve this dynamic level in the extreme low register of the instrument, and the Philharmonia player here does better than Dutoit’s rather more fruity oboist in Montreal.

The Albert Hall acoustic suits Uranus perfectly, with the timpani passages which can frequently be obscured in a halo of reverberation sounding ideally precise. The xylophone solo which is so often highlighted is properly balanced with the rest of the orchestra.

There are a great many extremely good performances of The Planets in the catalogues – and this is an extremely good one. Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb-International.com Aug 2012

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