Holst Planets Harding BR Klassik 900208 

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op 32
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
rec. live 25 February 2022, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich
BR Klassik 900208 [57]

When this recording arrived to review, the thought occurred to me that maybe Holst’s magnificent score for The Planets has slipped out of favour somewhat. Long gone are the days when the great international maestros, such as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan (twice), Lorin Maazel, Georg Solti, Eugene Ormandy, James Levine and Bernard Haitink, to name just a handful, were queueing up to perform and record it. Indeed, in those days, not that long ago, British conductors were often paired up with major international ensembles, such as Neville Marriner with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Colin Davis and Simon Rattle, both with the Berlin Philharmonic, to record it for their respective labels – albeit with decidedly mixed results, as exemplified by Adrian Boult’s own recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, by far the worst of the many tapings he made of the piece. Nowadays, it appears that international maestros have little time for the work – indeed, I cannot recollect Muti or Chailly ever performing, let alone recording, it and nor do the ‘young guns’ Nézet-Séguin, Nelsons, Dudamel or either Petrenko appear to have much interest in it either, which is all a tremendous disappointment really. Yet green shoots of recovery may be reappearing, as on this release we have the British conductor – foreign orchestra combo reprised, Daniel Harding being paired with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – not, I believe, an ensemble which has recorded the piece before – for their own label, BR Klassik.

For the purposes of this review, I grabbed a fistful of Planets from my collection, the randomness of which can be exemplified by the inclusion of the “wrong” Boults and Karajans, namely the former’s 1967 recording with the New Philharmonia that is generally less well-regarded than his later remake with the London Philharmonic, as well as Karajan’s digital recording from Berlin that many feel is not an improvement on his earlier recording with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca. The other two recordings were Dutoit’s with the Montreal Symphony on Decca and a better-than-you-would-think John Eliot Gardiner with the Philharmonia. Disappointingly, I have to declare at the outset that this new disc by Daniel Harding was not included when the time came to file them all back.

What perhaps sums up this new recording is the opening movement of Mars which, with a timing of eight and a half minutes, is over a minute slower than any of the other four recordings. I was initially intrigued by this, wondering what Harding would do with this extra time and freedom, perhaps using it to explore hidden textures within Holst’s score in the manner of late Celibidache, or even to bring colossal weight to the proceedings as Lorin Maazel was wont to do in his late – and also very slow – recordings of Mahler. In truth, he does neither; the only thing of note is a general air of relaxation about the proceedings that is surely very wrong. Comparisons with the Karajan, not one renowned for the snap and precision of his rhythms, is to hear a performance where the Berlin Philharmonic growls and roars like Fafner, while with Sir Adrian Boult, usually the embodiment of a stiff-upper-lipped English gentleman, it is to hear music-making which terrifyingly recalls the pummelling artillery of the Western Front from the Great War. With both, the rhythms are unrelenting and the climaxes are unleashed with maximum power, whereas under Harding those same climaxes have a soft underbelly, lacking in both sound and fury and not really signifying very much at all.

To my ears, this relaxed approach is very much the undoing of Harding in this recording, with virtually every one of the movements in the suite noticeably slower than the norm. Even when I felt he was going to get it right – for example, in the fine build-up of tension and power in Saturn – its final climax is disappointingly limp, almost apologetic in tone, lacking the sense of nightmare that Karajan and Boult evoke with doom-laden bells clanging in the background. Doom-laden nightmares are hardly qualities one associates with the suave Charles Dutoit, at least not musically, but even he has a keener ear for the drama at this point and his 1986 Decca recording somehow captures the low bass notes of the organ at the end of Saturn with a tummy-wobbling clarity that Harding’s new production cannot emulate, whichever format is selected, good though it is, not least since it is apparently live with a silent audience. 

To be fair to Harding, it is not all bad. In Venus, he inspires the Bavarian players to produce playing of cool and sensuous beauty and elsewhere in the work they play with an accuracy and dedication that was not always the case in the Karajan recording from Berlin (readers may be surprised to learn that he had to overcome some resistance from the Berliners who were not persuaded by the merits of Holst’s score). Harding also does Jupiter quite well, but crucially there seems to be a drop in intensity during the section used for the English hymn I vow to thee, my country, which starts and ends well but droops in the middle. It is a fault also in Mercury and, especially, Neptune, where the relaxed approach allows the music just to trudge drearily towards the finishing line, rather than magically disappear into the heavens at the end.

All in all, it is a pity – this is yet another entry into the disappointing editions of British conductors paired with a foreign orchestra in a work that deserves to shine much more brightly than it does here. I am sure most readers will have their own personal favourite recordings of The Planets and so can reassure them with complete confidence that this new one from Daniel Harding does not deserve to displace them, in spite of the novelty of the orchestra involved.

Lee Denham

Previous review: Ralph Moore (May 2023)

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