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HOLST  The Planets

 

August 2012

Gustav HOLST
(1874-1934)

The Planets, Op.32 (1914-17): The Perfect Fool, Op.39: Ballet music (1922)

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. William Boughton              
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 11-12 January 1988

NIMBUS NI 7076 [60.03]

 

At the time of the first performance of The Planets, Holst was suffering severely from the neuritis in his hands which plagued him all his life, and much of the actual writing out of the massive score had to be undertaken by his pupils at St Paul’s School under the composer’s supervision. As a result the score presented a considerable number of problems for performers because of missing dynamic markings (although it is invariably clear what these should be) and the score was newly edited by Colin Matthews and Imogen Holst in 1979 to supply these and to correct various other misprints in earlier editions. Even so The Planets is not a work that could ever be easy to play, and it presents many problems not only of technique but also of balance to inexperienced players. One of these occurs almost immediately in Mars where Holst introduces a solo for the “tenor tuba” which is usually nowadays played on the euphonium. I suspect this to be a mistake; the euphonium, a brass band instrument approximating in that medium to the cello, is rather too soft-edged to make the right sort of impact. Karajan in his 1960 Vienna recording employed a tenor “Wagner tuba” which produced a more incisive effect but stood out from the orchestral balance uncomfortably at other points in the score; I do not know what instrument William Boughton uses here, but it sounds sharper-edged than a euphonium and is pretty well ideal. I suspect however that it may have been assisted by microphone placement, since later in the movement it recedes back into the orchestral mix and its duet with the trumpet towards the end (at 4.59) does not sound ideally matched. Also rather backwardly balanced is the Albert Hall organ which does not sound through the texture in the same way as in the superbly engineered and ideally balanced recording Charles Dutoit made in Montreal for Decca – although better that, I suppose, than the horribly electronic effect which Karajan achieved in his later Berlin recording for DG (considerably toned down in later remasterings).

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 of course 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; but 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. Here is a case where some discreet spotlighting really is needed. There is one passage at 2.34 (returning later) which never really comes off in performance – the strings and woodwind who have been playing a two-beat rhythm in 6/8 are suddenly instructed for two bars to play with a three-beat rhythm, indicated by forte accents. At Holst’s Vivace marking it is extremely difficult for the players to make this distinction clear, and the performance here succeeds no better than any others that I have heard.

Jupiter bustles along with plenty of jollity, but Boughton does not observe the ritenuto at 1.34 which Holst indicates as leading into the molto pesante tune on the horns – no more than do many of his rivals, including Sir Adrian Boult who gave the first performance. Oddly enough when this passage returns later on, Holst omits the ritenuto marking, and since the passages are otherwise identical one wonders whether the first marking might be a simple error which has remained uncorrected. Boughton treats the central ‘big tune’ as a country dance and not as a patriotic hymn, which is of course quite correct, but properly allows a slight broadening towards the end of the passage which is marked maestoso. When the tune occurs at the very end Holst indicates that a single crochet of the new speed should be the equivalent of a full bar of the previous one; Boughton observes this precisely, but many conductors make a further broadening to match Holst’s new tempo marking Lento maestoso – I think this is probably needed to give the ‘big tune’ is full breadth, but what Boughton does here is what Holst indicates.

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. As the music rises to a climax, Holst marks the score Animato and indicates that the bells should be played “with metal striker.” In a footnote to the new edition of the score the player is advised to use a rawhide mallet “to avoid damaging the bells,” and this is what we are given here although the sound is clearly not what the composer had in mind. Many conductors turn the Animato into a violent acceleration (Holst gives no metronome marks in his score, but in his very fast recorded performance of the movement as a whole does lend this interpretation some credence) but Boughton here keeps the two tempi closely balanced, to the considerable advantage of the music. When the music dies down again the bells return, marked pianissimo and to be played with a “soft felt striker” – but here they recede too far into the background as a consequence (they are clearer even on Holst’s old 78s, although what we hear there does not sound at all like a “felt striker”), and the organ pedal which underpins the music could also be more palpable. Dutoit in Montreal gets this passage just right, and the result makes more of what could otherwise be regarded as an over-extended “dying fall.”

The Albert Hall acoustic suits Uranus perfectly, with the timpani passages which can frequently be obscured in a halo of reverberation sounding ideally precise, and the xylophone solo which is so often highlighted (with grotesque results in Adrian Boult’s 1954 reading) properly balanced with the rest of the orchestra. The timpani could however be more defined at 2.49 (the part is marked “solo”) although they are better eleven bars later and thereafter. The notorious organ glissando at the catastrophic climax also blends into the background slightly too much, and the timpani solo at 4.40 is not really distinct enough either. The tempo of Neptune, shown as Andante in the score, is all too often taken by conductors to read Largo molto, but Boughton keeps the music flowing. However the recording here does not give any definition to Holst’s subtle orchestral effects; the tremolos in the highest register of the harps are almost inaudible and the subtle interplay of the harps with celesta and muted violins is more clearly evident in the superb engineering that Decca provide for Dutoit. Holst may have required that the orchestra should play pianissimo and with “dead tone” throughout, but he devoted considerable ingenuity to the provision of variety in the texture, and it would be nice to hear more of this. The unnamed chorus, set at a distance as Holst requires, could also be slightly more palpable, and their internal tuning sounds slightly insecure at the admittedly extremely difficult chromatic passage at 6.16. At the end they fade nicely if rather rapidly into the distance.

The coupling with the ballet music from The perfect fool is a well-conceived one, since the music of the two scores has much in common with each other. This again is music that is not easy to play, but Boughton is nicely forthright in the Dance of the spirits of the earth even if the following Dance of the spirits of water could be more gracefully romantic and the final Dance of the spirits of fire is a bit brash. In the booklet note written in 1988 Geoffrey Crankshaw makes a plea for “some act of rescue” for the complete score of the opera – over twenty years later we are still waiting. At the time he was writing there had only been a BBC recording from the mid-1960s, where Imogen Holst had laid violent hands on the score, abridging some passages and introducing a spoken narration to clarify points of the plot. In her book on her father’s music she was very rude about the “intolerable” libretto (written by the composer) and Crankshaw also adduces the “poor” text as a reason for the score’s neglect. This really does the composer an injustice. Although at the time of its first performance critics suspected allegory, the plot is really a light-hearted satire on opera in general, and a very funny one at that. What it really requires is a production that takes the music extremely seriously, thus making the contrast between the vocal writing and the nonsensical words even funnier. The BBC recording of 1997 (currently available on the internet) did that, with the exception of the miscasting of Richard Suart (a very good comic baritone in the Savoy Operas) in the central role of the Wizard, giving a G&S slant to music which really demands a Wagnerian singer in the Hunding/Hagen mould. But Vernon Handley does take the score seriously, obtaining superb performances elsewhere and giving us every note of the score as Holst wrote it. Could somebody now please take another look at the score, giving us a properly high-class Verdian tenor for the Troubadour and a Wagnerian bass-baritone as the Traveller? Holst’s parodies of Verdi and Wagner are not only first-class satire, but are also uncomfortably convincing when they are given full weight.

There are of course a great many extremely good performances of The Planets in the catalogues – and this is an extremely good one. There are also a few which give us exactly this coupling with the Perfect fool ballet music, including a very fine one by Sir Charles Mackerras with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; recordings by Solti and Mehta, both available coupled with Boult’s early 1960s Perfect fool, are rather superficial by comparison. The minor imperfections in balance (largely the result of the natural problems in Holst’s own scoring) in this Nimbus recording are not serious enough to prevent a strong recommendation for Boughton’s performance; but on a purely personal level I must also strongly recommend Dutoit’s Decca version, both for its more individual view on the score and its superlative if less natural engineering.

May 2013

 

Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)

The Planets (1917)

Joby TALBOT (b.1971)

Worlds, stars, systems, infinity (2012)

Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

rec. Watford Colosseum and Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 2012

extras: documentary feature, listening guide films, audio commentaries

SIGNUM VISION SIGDVD009 [DVD, 112.00]

 

A documentary which comes with the issue explains the raison d’être behind this project, which was designed not just as a performance of Holst’s suite but an as interactive experience at the London Science Museum where participants could act as conductor, player or even composer as part of an educative project. Obviously with a DVD issue the interactive part of the whole is severely curtailed, but the package has to be considered as a whole rather than as a set of independent parts. Nevertheless it may be useful to consider first the performance, then the video production and finally the educative parts in isolation from each other.

Last year I reviewed a recording of The Planets by this same orchestra under William Boughton on the Nimbus label, and in that article I pointed out a considerable number of pitfalls that can await the unwary in performances of the work, some of them of the composer’s own creation. One has to say that nearly all of these are avoided here, although I doubt that any performance could make Holst’s marked alternations between two and three beats to the bar in the central section of Mercury as audible as the composer clearly wished. Elsewhere problems of balance created by Holst are resolved by close microphone positioning (necessary for video purposes) and some clearly artificial boosting of individual players such as the euphonium in Mars. The only drawback to this is the very closely observed violin sound; the players themselves can withstand this level of intense scrutiny, but the harp harmonics at the end of Uranus are covered by the string pianissimo in a way that simply does not happen in live performances. Otherwise Esa-Pekka Salonen, who clearly loves the work, gives a splendid reading with perhaps more fire than relaxation.

The video presentation eschews any attempt at showing us the planets themselves (perhaps an odd omission for a project with which the Science Museum was involved, but then Holst was writing about the planets as astrological symbols and not astronomical bodies). What we get is a straightforward television presentation of the orchestra playing the score, but the vaunted use of 37 cameras means that we can get a much more detailed view of individual players than one gets in the usual concert broadcasts as seen on video and television. There is of course a price to be paid for this – in order for the cameras to be able to manoeuvre, there were consequent difficulties for the players in co-ordination which necessitated multiple takes and (as already observed) the resulting sound balance is somewhat artificial. This problem is enhanced by the fact that the organ (spliced in afterwards from a completely different venue) is seen on screen, while the singers (similarly added after the event by multi-tracking) are never seen at all.

This close observation of the orchestra by the cameras is inevitable given the educational and didactic purpose which the video also seeks to fulfil. One can also watch the performance with commentaries by the conductor (although I was unable to access this facility on any of the three players with which I tried) and members of the orchestra, who demonstrate particular problems in the score insofar as their own parts are concerned while also ranging quite widely over discussions concerning emotion in music and its effect on players, as well as a delightfully diverting commentary concerning Mantovani of all people. These insights would be particularly valuable not only to newcomers to the score (who can also access spoken introductions to each movement) but also to professionals. I certainly discovered some aspects of the score of which I was previously unaware, and all composers should take note of the continual complaints of the players over unhelpfully placed page turns in orchestral parts. One point of controversy here: on several occasions the players remark upon the fact that they alter Holst’s written score in order to take advantage of improvements in technique and instruments since his day. I don’t imagine the composer would have objected to this (I had certainly never noticed the minor adjustments involved), but how does this square with the principle of ‘faithfulness to the composer’s intentions’ upon which we are always being lectured when Beethoven (for example) is involved?

In order to extend this educational role to the process of composition itself, the orchestra commissioned a new piece by Joby Talbot to round off the suite. This is not a new idea, of course. Colin Matthews produced a movement some years ago called Pluto, the renewer just in time for Pluto to be robbed of its planetary status, and he made the unwise decision to splice this movement into the choral ‘fade’ which terminates the suite in its original form – and incidentally spoil one of Holst’s most novel innovations in the score. Here unfortunately Joby Talbot in his movement Worlds, stars, systems, infinity has made exactly the same miscalculation – the music for the final movement begins before Holst’s score has really ended. This means that listeners to the performance must perforce have this additional movement as well. Talbot has great fun with Holst’s massive orchestra, to which he adds further instruments (meditation bowls, a massive rack of crotales) and instrumental effects (timpani glissandos, stopped horns and various modern trumpets mutes) to conjure up a grandly impressive movement. But it doesn’t really have much to do with Holst (despite some quotations from Holst’s textures which end the piece with its depiction of infinity) and his use of the offstage chorus as a full element in the orchestral texture goes against Holst’s deliberate distancing of the singers from the orchestra. In an accompanying documentary we are told that patrons at the Science Museum were able to interact with the compositional process, transferring passages from one group of instruments to another to compare the effect, and this was doubtless valuable in that context; but for video presentation it might have been better to separate the Talbot movement off to a completely independent track.

There are not many musical works that could stand up to this degree of close scrutiny, but fortunately Holst’s Planets is one of them. Ivan Hewett for the Daily Telegraph reviewed the original exhibition at the Science Museum, and observed that “For newcomers to the orchestra, this installation certainly gives a taste of its amazing richness. But it could be useful to music-students too, keen to get some tips on how to balance winds against brass.” I am sure he is right about this, not having seen the ‘installation’ myself – but I note from the Philharmonia’s website that they intend to tour the exhibition to Canterbury and Birmingham during 2013 before it is “developed for international touring.” I would certainly, on the basis of my experience of this DVD, make an effort to catch it.

July 2022

 

Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)

The Planets, Op.32*: The Perfect Fool, Op.39: ballet music:+ Egdon Heath, Op.47+

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Georg Solti*: Sir Adrian Boult+

rec. 1978*: 1961+

St Paul’s Suite, Op.29/2

St Paul Chamber Orchestra cond. Christopher Hogwood

rec. 1992

A Moorside Suite

Grimethorpe Colliery Band cond. Elgar Howarth

rec. 1976

Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op.26: *Third Group: The Evening Watch, Op.43/1: Ave Maria, Op.9b: This have I done for my true love, Op.34/1

Purcell Singers cond. Imogen Holst with Osian Ellis, harp*

rec. 1965*: 1966

The Hymn of Jesus, Op.37

BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra cond. Sir Adrian Boult

rec. 1962

DECCA DOUBLE 444 549-2 [2 CDs, 79.21 + 70.03]

 

In the 1950s Decca, quite apart from their exclusive sponsorship of the music of Benjamin Britten, displayed a considerable concern for the recording of music by other British composers, most notably in the complete cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies under Sir Adrian Boult supervised by the composer. And from the late 1950s they expanded their field of cultivation to include the music of Gustav Holst, beginning with an innovative and thrilling version of The Planets from the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, and then extending their catalogue further with a compilation of three relative Holst rarities under Boult (sponsored by the British Council) and a whole raft of issues of even rarer music supervised by Holst’s daughter Imogen on their associated Argo label, which included such gems as the complete opera Savitri with Janet Baker and the twelve Wolfe songs with Britten and Pears. And there, possibly in the light of discouraging sales, they allowed the matter to rest. The baton passed to Lyrita, who took over the production of orchestral rarities conducted by Sir Adrian, Imogen Holst and (later) David Atherton; and to EMI, who produced some valuable recordings conducted by Sir Charles Groves as well as the two operas At the Boar’s Head and The wandering scholar.

With the advent of the CD era, Decca assembled a double-disc set of many of these less well-known Holst pieces, including the complete contents of their British Council LP conducted by Boult and samples from their Argo recordings including the complete Savitri. This has already been reviewed on the MusicWeb site by Stephen Hall and Rob Barnett; but this Presto reissue is of a slightly different compilation. Savitri and some of the partsongs have now been jettisoned, along with Christopher Hogwood’s Fugal Concerto, to be replaced by Sir Georg Solti conducting The Planets, although only the retained Hogwood St Paul’s Suite derives from a digital master recording. While one can understand the desire to appeal to the taste of the general public by the inclusion of Holst’s best-known work The Planets, the loss of Savitri from the compilation is particularly distressing. The more so since Decca actually have a better (and digital) reading of that score in their catalogue in the shape of the masterly interpretation of Charles Dutoit, with its magnificent organ pedals in Saturn comprehensively outclassing even the best efforts of the Decca engineers for Solti. Maybe that later recording was not available for mid-price reissue at the time of the original release of this set.

The three Boult items – a sparkling and poised account of the Perfect Fool ballet music, a sombre and rather reserved Egdon Heath (there is perhaps more light and shade in the music than we find here) and a resonant Hymn of Jesus – are all well-known items nowadays, and hardly seem to have been out of the catalogues since their original issues nearly fifty years ago. The Hymn of Jesus in particular must have presented a real challenge to recording engineers at the time with its extremes of dynamic range, but the Decca team rose to the occasion and the results remain crystal clear on CD – and better-balanced than some much more recent recordings, such as Sir Mark Elder’s live performance on the Hallé label; the female semi-chorus is properly distant here, but remains distinct and perfectly tuned even in their final diminuendo. Imogen Holst’s traversal of some of Holst’s choral music is similarly clear-toned in terms of the singing, but some of this music really demands a rather richer tone such as might be provided by a larger body of vocalists. The intricate counterpoint of the early Ave Maria, despite its almost mediaeval asceticism, would seem to be better served by a perversely Victorian/Edwardian body of amateur singers such as Holst would have had at his disposal at the time. Nor is Osian Ellis’s filigree accompaniment to the Rig Veda hymns sufficiently far forward to allow us to appreciate his delicacy of touch.

The clarity of the recording in Solti’s Planets on the other hand cannot however be faulted, despite its analogue origins. Indeed it is perhaps the very crispness of his response to the score, and the realisation of his intentions by the orchestra, which robs the performance of the final degree of spontaneity. There are also places, such as the tricky passage for the tenor tuba solo in Mars, where the balance seems to go awry, with the brass rather too recessed in the mixture, sounding as though coming from a distance; Karajan manages the problem considerably better in Vienna, with his Wagnerian tenor tuba blaring away menacingly. It is not stated anywhere in the CD material where the recording was made, but it was apparently in London’s Kingsway Hall; the organ sounds far from clear either in its subterranean rumblings in Mars and Saturn, let alone in its glorious glissando in Uranus. But the chorus is well distanced in Neptune and the performance as a whole, although not in the top rank of contenders in a work that has been exceptionally well served on record, is far from inconsiderable.

The comparative rarity of Holst’s Moorside Suite in its original version for brass band is well served by the Grimethorpe players, but I have more considerable doubts about the St Paul ensemble under Christopher Hogwood in the St Paul’s Suite which, as the booklet material clearly indicates, was written for string orchestra. Here there are plentiful contributions from wind players to be heard in the mix, with no explanation of the edition that has been employed nor on what authority Holst’s original scoring has been so blatantly ignored (even though the final movement may have been first conceived for military band). [I was subsequently advised that the alterations in scoring were derived from unpublished amendments made to orchestral parts in the possession of St Paul's School, although it was unclear when or for what purpose these were devised.] The arrangement has not even been very idiomatically made, with some solo lines that could conceivably have been transferred to wind instruments left in the hands of solo strings. I cannot find that these alterations to Holst’s scorings have been the subject of any previous critical comment (except an oblique reference in Fanfare to what is described as a “larger orchestration”), but it is surely a misrepresentation of the composer’s intentions.

So, what we have in this Presto reissue is a useful compendium of Holst’s music, designed presumably to attract purchasers for The Planets who wish to explore further the music of a composer whose popularity seems to rest so predominantly on one single work. And as such it will prove highly serviceable. But what we really want, preferably in time for the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2014, is a complete conspectus of the musical output of a composer whose total achievement is still shamefully neglected. The reasons for this are manifold, not least the deliberate attempt by Imogen Holst to suppress many of her father’s earlier scores as unworthy of the mature genius; but the lack of a recording of such works as Hecuba’s Lament is absurd, let alone the absence of complete sets of the choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (especially the thrilling first and last of the fourth set, still totally unrepresented in the catalogues), the late and unconventional Welsh folksong arrangements (preferably in the original language), the mediaeval lyrics with their experimental construction and treatment of tonality, a properly uncut Perfect Fool (without the multitude of ridiculous and unnecessary snips inflicted on the score in the Groves broadcast issued last year on Lyrita), and the early opera Sita, where the availability of a couple of extracts only whets the appetite for more. At one time it appeared that Chandos might be stepping up to the plate, with a Holst edition to challenge their sterling work on behalf of Walton; but the death of Richard Hickox mid-way through the sessions for the Choral Symphony (although the baton was valiantly taken up by Sir Andrew Davis) effectively seems to have scuppered any such project. How about it, Chandos? There are still a couple of years to go.

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