Holst The Planets BR Klassik

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
rec. live composite 24/25 February 2022, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich
BR Klassik BR900208 [57]

Like most collectors of a certain age, I have my own favourite versions of this sturdiest of warhorses: two by Boult, an early recording by Mehta with the LAPO and Dutoit’s classic with the Montréal orchestra all feature prominently among my preferred accounts, but I admit to being sufficiently intrigued by seeing an excoriating review of this new release on YouTube to ask for it in order to judge for myself.

The first thing to say about Harding’s account here is that it is objectively slow: his overall timing is four minutes slower than Dutoit in 1986, seven minutes slower than Mehta back in 1971, eight minutes slower than Boult with the VSO in 1959 and fully nine minutes slower than Boult with the LPO in 1979. This is especially true of ‘Saturn’ and ‘Neptune’; Harding labours for a massive 9:49 over the latter whereas in his two recordings Boult takes 6:19 and 6:21 respectively; that’s a very big difference by any standard.

The first impressions of ‘Mars’ are deeply disappointing: slack, listless playing without any of the bite and menace one automatically associates with this iconic music. This is a dull trudge through battlefield mud, not a gleaming war machine mercilessly sweeping aside frail humanity. Even the sound-picture is muddy; a few minutes in and I had to stop and switch to sampling the openings of the other recordings and the impact of the timpani pounding and the col legno twittering is so much more striking, even in the old analogue versions. Little touches Boult brings to his phrasing, too, such as the dynamic swelling and shading of the brass lines, are so much more vivid than Harding’s penny-plain delivery. I would not have believed that it was possible to make this music boring, but Harding succeeds; his direction is soporific.

‘Venus’ is much more engaging, featuring some predictably lovely solo playing by instrumentalists of the BRSO who are, after all, a top, world-class orchestra. The celesta is especially delicate – yet, when all’s said and done, I do not find this account as colourful and striking as Boult’s work in his unlikely partnership with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra – and Mehta’s Los Angeles strings soar more ecstatically. ‘Mercury’ reverts to the rhythmic limpness which blights ‘Mars’ mainly because it is a bit slow.

‘Jupiter’ is surely at the core of the suite and requiring first a bluff, Falstaffian bonhomie which evolves into a grander, Elgarian nobilmente mode. I do not derive from Harding’s account the kind of rollicking, “Merrie Olde Englande” buzz Boult delivers in his versions; it is neatly, relatively sedately executed and is devoid of the sense of risk which enticingly dogs Boult’s brass. ‘Saturn’ is again slow and for me teeters on the edge of stasis; the Grand Old Man is not dead but Harding’s Senior Citizen sounds distinctly moribund. Everything about Boult’s characterisation of the music is more arresting and telling: play them back-to-back and tell me I’m wrong…

The opening of ‘Uranus’ – the close cousin to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice – should pin back your ears – and here it doesn’t. Boult does, though; he is so much more exuberant in the development of the big brass theme. However, just as the opening of this suite disappoints, its close is equally problematic.

The finale, ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ – reminiscent, in part, of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ – is similarly somewhat lacking in atmosphere for reasons which are hard to elucidate, especially as the choir creeps in smoothy and is properly distanced; the fading away of the voices is beautifully engineered. Nonetheless, I played the other versions to compare and find them more absorbing, as Harding’s very leisurely speed tends to enervate the music. Having said that, the forensic clarity of Boult’s Viennese version is rather startling. 

Apart from the opening of ‘Mars’, balances are good and there are no extraneous noises. My distinct antipathy to the manner of the opening movement apart, this is not a necessarily a “bad” account – but I can see no compelling reason for favouring it over established favourites; the lack of release and that laboured ‘Mars’ in particular are real disincentives to recommending it.

Ralph Moore

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