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CD Review

Gustav Holst

Orchestral Hits

  • The Perfect Fool - Ballet
  • Egdon Heath
  • The Planets *
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
* New Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Boult
EMI CDM 66934 ADD 76:47
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Best stereo Planets on record.

The Planets is one of those pieces, like Stravinsky's Le Sacre or Grieg's piano concerto, at once atypical of their composer and enormously popular, which nevertheless deserve their popularity. It also, like Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, creates a powerful new musical landscape – so powerful, indeed, that almost nobody else has been able to follow up on its expressive possibilities. The Planets appears to have burst without a precedent on the musical scene and to have been dropped by Holst, who never again wrote another piece like it. However, this is merely because not many know Holst's earlier work, due in large part to the composer's daughter, Imogen, and her management of her father's posthumous reputation. In the context of Holst's entire career, The Planets culminates Holst's first maturity and stands at the end of a line that includes Savitri, Sita, the suites for band, and particularly Beni Mora. It also contains the seeds of the later, more austere, and sparer Holst.

"Mars" begins with a snarl and a roar, and, if we consider Holst's output up to this point, wholly of the 20th century. It prophesizes such later works as Hammersmith and Egdon Heath with its heavy ostinati and strong insistence on an odd time signature (in this case, 5/4). In contrast, "Venus" recalls Holst's earlier almost salon-like vein. Daughter Imogen heard the "last, lingering spores" of Holst's infatuation with Wagner's music, but she knows more Wagner than I. "Mercury" shows Holst as not only a poet, but a consummate professional and master of orchestral color. "Jupiter" does several difficult things at once convincingly, including the juxtaposition of at least two very different moods – bustling and swaggering (again prophetic of Hammersmith) and a personal twist on the Elgarian nobilimente. The last three movements, however, explore radically new expressive territory – indeed, they foretell most of Holst's postwar career. I find this new means of expression hard to characterize, since Holst finds many uses for it. Writers have described it as "bleak." It certainly doesn't use a lot of notes, such as one notices in "Jupiter" especially. The thematic content in particular is down to a minimum – sometimes just two notes or two chords. On the other hand, Holst turns to the same means, despite its apparent limitations, to express ecstasy (as in The Hymn of Jesus), mystery, "otherness," and serene detachment. One doesn't get this emotional landscape again – with the possible exception of works written by Vaughan Williams as a kind of homage to Holst – until the so-called Holy Minimalists, and there the means is usually pared down even further.

For me, a successful performance of The Planets doesn't have to include knockouts of every movement. "Venus" and "Mercury," for example, seem to forgive professional, if bland, accounts. However, I would miss the following: a certain weight on the hammer-blow ostinato of "Mars," as well as the ability to get louder and softer, both with intensity; the orchestral blaze and rhythmic excitement of "Jupiter," as well as a sincerely noble trio; a sustained forward propulsion, like the rumble of a heavy train, in "Uranus"; in "Saturn," the drawing out of the slow march and the tragedy of the climax; in "Neptune," the rapture of the music, too often a waste of time in the hands of less sympathetic conductors. Karajan, despite the incredible Berlin Philharmonic, is crude and generally clueless. Even in "Mars," he misses the contribution of the diminuendo passages to the power of the climaxes. Dutoit is simply too light (fine for "Mercury") and doesn't really understand the "Englishness" in Holst. The music seems made for Stokowski, who does a fine job (and a couple of wonderful surprises), especially with an heroic rather than resigned "Saturn," but who in other movements treats this work mainly as a Sonic Spectacular. Solti loses the musical threads of "Saturn" and "Neptune." Previn and Hickox do okay, but their accounts lack something special. Boult premièred the work and recorded it many times. I've heard this recording (from the Sixties; I believe his penultimate) and his final one, and I prefer this. According to Svejda, Boult's recordings show that the conductor didn't greatly alter his tempi or his approach to the work. The difference between the final two recordings come down to rhythmic sharpness and linear intensity. This performance relaxes less than the other – to me, a plus.

Egdon Heath comes from Holst's late period. The composer intended it as an homage to Thomas Hardy and had entered into a friendship with the poet. Hardy was enthusiastic about Holst's tackling of the famous description from The Return of the Native, but didn't live to hear the final work – by me, a powerful, strongly individual piece, with the granite and doom of Hardy's prose. To some extent, it comes from "Saturn," but Holst is older and writes with greater psychological complexity. By me the best recording is again Boult's (on Decca; as far as I know, never transferred to CD), but Previn's is quite fine. If his hasn't the weight of Boult's account, it has the edge in textural clarity, rhythmic bite, and gradations of dynamics, particularly at the softer end.

Holst wrote seven operas. Of these, four are published: Savitri (1908), The Perfect Fool (1918-22), At the Boar's Head (1924), and The Wandering Scholar (1930). None have held the stage, and for years only Savitri and The Wandering Scholar had a professional recording (At the Boar's Head recently became available on EMI CDM565127-2). Nevertheless, the ballet music from The Perfect Fool has become a Holst "hit," and it makes me want to hear the entire opera. The composer's daughter, Imogen, considers the libretto its chief drawback, but no one cares about the miserable libretti of Verdi, Puccini, or Leoncavallo. The music overcomes dramatic defects of the scripts. It may turn out the same with Holst. Considering the state of opera life, at least in the US, it's more likely that I will grow a third arm than hear, let alone see, the work complete, for reasons that have nothing to do with libretto and everything to do with what producers see as box office.

To some extent, the ballet music hearkens back to The Planets and Beni Mora, but the scoring is far more elegant. It's a show-stopper, in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov's Schéhérazade – lots of exciting climaxes and slightly sweet melancholy. One doesn't look for psychological depth here, but damned if Previn doesn't find some in the "Dance of Spirits of Water." Furthermore, Previn doesn't sacrifice the lumbering muscularity of the more extrovert sections to get it. In short, I like Previn's reading best of the ones I've heard, including Boult's.

The level of orchestral playing – especially from the London Symphony – is superb, simultaneously suave and powerful.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz