Is it chance or serendipity that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic timed their new recording of Holst's The Planets to coincide with the current astronomical upheaval? Though Holst learned of the discovery of Pluto ... more »four years before he died, it probably did not occur to him to add another movement, especially since the work's last section, "Neptune, the Mystic," ends in an other-worldly, ethereal fade-out, enhanced by an off-stage wordless women's chorus. He would have been surprised by the latest development in Pluto's status, but undoubtedly pleased that his ultimately incomplete Suite-- which had become more popular than he had expected or thought it deserved--had inspired another British composer, Colin Matthews, to write a successful companion piece, "Pluto, the Renewer," in 2000. Moreover, the Berlin Philharmonic added to Holst's galaxy by commissioning four composers to write a movement each for a Suite called "Asteroids." This is its premiere recording. The idea of "music of the spheres" goes back to antiquity; perhaps the most famous example of its influence is the slow movement of Beethoven's second "Rasumovsky" String Quartet. Holst gives each of his planets its mythological characteristics: "Mars" is forcefully war-like, "Venus" melodiously peaceful; "Mercury" is a fleet, skittish Scherzo, "Jupiter" rambunctious but suddenly songful. "Saturn" is a soft, solemn march, and "Uranus" murmurs and glitters. The work's most striking element is the scoring. A huge orchestra produces enormous contrasts (underlined by the recording), incredibly colorful sound effects and lush, dense, sonorities, with a lot of melodic doubling and undulating accompanying figures. The sound-world of the "Asteroids" is also based on instrumental colors and effects: whispers, shimmers, crashes and extreme registers. All this is just right for this virtuoso orchestra. Edith Eisler« less
Is it chance or serendipity that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic timed their new recording of Holst's The Planets to coincide with the current astronomical upheaval? Though Holst learned of the discovery of Pluto four years before he died, it probably did not occur to him to add another movement, especially since the work's last section, "Neptune, the Mystic," ends in an other-worldly, ethereal fade-out, enhanced by an off-stage wordless women's chorus. He would have been surprised by the latest development in Pluto's status, but undoubtedly pleased that his ultimately incomplete Suite-- which had become more popular than he had expected or thought it deserved--had inspired another British composer, Colin Matthews, to write a successful companion piece, "Pluto, the Renewer," in 2000. Moreover, the Berlin Philharmonic added to Holst's galaxy by commissioning four composers to write a movement each for a Suite called "Asteroids." This is its premiere recording. The idea of "music of the spheres" goes back to antiquity; perhaps the most famous example of its influence is the slow movement of Beethoven's second "Rasumovsky" String Quartet. Holst gives each of his planets its mythological characteristics: "Mars" is forcefully war-like, "Venus" melodiously peaceful; "Mercury" is a fleet, skittish Scherzo, "Jupiter" rambunctious but suddenly songful. "Saturn" is a soft, solemn march, and "Uranus" murmurs and glitters. The work's most striking element is the scoring. A huge orchestra produces enormous contrasts (underlined by the recording), incredibly colorful sound effects and lush, dense, sonorities, with a lot of melodic doubling and undulating accompanying figures. The sound-world of the "Asteroids" is also based on instrumental colors and effects: whispers, shimmers, crashes and extreme registers. All this is just right for this virtuoso orchestra. Edith Eisler
A worthy musical view of space that eschews bombast
Larry VanDeSande | Mason, Michigan United States | 04/23/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This recording will forever be remembered as the commodity that arrived simultanous with Pluto being decertified as a planet in 2006. It appears this was more happenstance than providence or marketing plan by DG since Simon Rattle's notes indicate he made these concert recordings after not conducting "The Planets" for more than 20 years. His notes also indicate his desire to include the second recording of Colin Matthews' "Pluto".
This concert (some call it "live") recording of "The Planets" strikes me as geared more to musical values than bombast, perhaps being more studied than necessary, and/or executed more for refinement than grandiloquence. Whichever one you subscribe to, I think you get the point -- this recording won't compete with those that go for broke boastfully and/or emotionally but it works on the same level as Claudio Abbado's famous Vienna Philharmonic version of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony: it makes music where many others make noise.
My personal favorite recording of "The Planets" is Adrian Boult's 1950s-era mono recording with the London Philharmonic (then called the Promenade Philharmonic) that once arrived on a $1.99 Westminster LP and was wretchedly engineered in fake stereo. That recording is still available in good mono via a Haydn House burn of pretty good quality, made from the LP where you can still hear an occasional rough patch of the needle.
Where Rattle's 2006 recording sets a somewhat stodgy pace so you can hear every instrument and every turn of the score, Boult's old recording goes full speed ahead with the largest possible voice most of the time, made from an aural perspective at the podium. The two recordings do not actually compete with each other; I find each has qualities I enjoy. I like Rattle's new version as a modern alternative. It is well-recorded in a dimension of clarity in league with Rattle's earlier recording of Mahler's "Symphony of the Thousand".
In addition, I find Rattle's toned down version far more palatable than the last modern recording of "The Planets" I listened to, the inadequate, impersonal and shallow version by John Gardiner, also on DG and billed as a stereo spectacular, that is mated to Percy Grainger's noisy "The Warriors". The only thing spectacular about Gardiner's version is how loud the band can play without saying anything. It seems incredible to me someone of Gardiner's stature would record a warhorse like "The Planets" without having any perspective on the music.
Back to this version...the disc 2 rarities, "Asteroid 4179: Toutatis", "Towards Osiris", "Ceres" and "Komarov's Fall", all sound like 1950s serial compositions to me. They add something to the overall project, and are interesting to talk about, but none seem to have much appeal on their own. Only the final "Komarov's Fall" seems really to have a beginning, middle and end. The other remind me of the stuff I used to hear on my PBS station's Friday night "Music from the Heart of Space" series. The second disk also carries a DVD on the making of "The Planets" I haven't witnessed.
So, all things considered, I think this is a good bargain for Amazon shoppers looking for a modern recording of "The Planets". When I wrote this there were a half-dozen vendors selling it used for less than $10. Unless you are really sold on cellophane, getting this two-CD 2006 production for $6.15 -- as one vendor is offering today -- is a good buy regardless of how many issues of "The Planets" you have hanging around your house."
Mark Shanks | Portland, OR | 09/27/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Rattle disappoints in a perfunctory reading of one of the most familar of concert warhorses. Mars is a bit "oogie-boogie" scary, not terrifying. Venus sulks in a warm bath of ultra-rubato. Rattle himself seems slightly embarrassed by the great central hymn of Jupiter, calling it "a nostalgic look at an England that never existed - the England of cricket fields and warm beer and bad cooking". Well, then - guess that shows US. But the most egregrious offense is cobbling together unwanted bits to, in Rattle's own words, "make a calling card for the orchestra". (Wow, that's ego for you! The Berlin Philharmonic needs a "calling card", and this dweeb is the guy to give it to them? Oh, brother!!!!) It's really just make-work for a group of completely unrelated compositional styles and the results are underwhelming in the extreme. It's bad enough that Pluto has been "downgraded" from planetary status - it now has to suffer the insult of being tagged "The Renewer" (for entirely obscure reasons) and having a tacky, alternately whispy and annoying six-minute noise-bomb associated with it. (The composer, Colin Matthews, is far better known as the producer of the Nonesuch recording of the Gorecki Third Symphony than as an orchestral composer.) Adding this piece after the ephemeral fade-out of Neptune makes as much sense as sticking chrome-plated plastic arms on the Venus d'Milo.
None of the other bits (specially commissioned, and boy do they sound like it) would make it on their own merits. As a bonus: there's a 10-minute video of Rattle discussing all this, but even that wears its welcome out quickly, too. (Hubble photos mixed with film of Rattle wearing the world's baggiest shirt match the uneven tone of this entire package.)
I give it three stars for curiosity value only. The "Planets" themselves aren't anything special - there doesn't seem to be any reason for this other than to promote the add-ons. Steinberg's recording is far more involving, as are any one of Boult's instead."
Big names produce lacklustre results
MartinP | Nijmegen, The Netherlands | 09/29/2006
(2 out of 5 stars)
"A website, a "making-of"enhanced CD feature, a rave review in Gramophone (it is Rattle, after all) - expectations for this issue are highly strung. Unfortunately, the sounds as such do not live up to them. This is a strangely bloodless traversal of the planetary system, with Rattle seemingly determined to go all subtle and turn the music into some kind of Rococo filigree. As in his Mahler recordings, the result can sound deliberate and mannered. Granted, at times it is definitely successful: Venus is simply breathtakingly beautiful, and Mercury's fleet-footedness is dazzling. But Mars is without menace (and without organ too, by the sound of it); Jupiter is unexhilerating, Uranus just OK but nothing more (and again, not a trace of the organ even in that spectacular upward glissando); Saturn and Neptune, finally, are seriously lacking in any sense of mystery. I suspect the recording itself is partly to blame; EMI engineering is, in my experience, rarely top notch, and the Berlin Philharmonie notoriously difficult acoustically speaking. On CD, there is lack of detail, the dynamic range does not expand quite as widely as one would hope, and strings can sound strangely lacklustre and thin. Worse though is the distancing of the woodwinds, who at times sound as if they were sent out of the hall to keep the female choir company. Then again, that choir, sounds too near rather than distant. Overall, and taking into account engineering deficits, this may be an acceptable account of The Planets, but it is at best a very pale cousin to the top choice readings by Dutoit, Gardiner or Andrew Davis. Unlike those, however, it offers a bonus in Colin Matthews's Pluto, and four additional "Asteroids" of yet more recent date. Though the promotion of contemporary composers by such a venerable ensemble is laudable, I must admit that for me these extras did very little to heighten the appeal of this set. Pluto starts even before Neptune has quite faded out, but presenting it as an integral part of the Holst only furthers the impression that it has nowhere near the stature of the other Planets. Like three of the four Asteroids, it presents the listener with a depersonalized, generic modernism that relies heavily on extreme sound effects (harmonics, sul ponticello), jarring transitions, unrelieved dissonance, random glissandi on harps or celesta, distant percussion rumblings, and general forgettability. You'll find this kind of music in any B-horror movie soundtrack. The one exception is Turnage's "Ceres", which has just enough rhythmic and harmonic contour to sustain the impression of architectural coherence, and is indeed an interesting piece (though it still remains very much in the shade of Holst's genius). Only for die-hard Rattlites. "
GREAT SOUND, GREAT PLAYING: CHALLENGING COUPLINGS
Klingsor Tristan | Suffolk | 09/20/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Current scientific thinking seems to have relegated Pluto from the list of fully-fledged planets in our Solar System. It might have been better if these discs had followed received opinion and moved Colin Matthews Pluto to the second disc of other Plutons. It is a fine and interesting piece in its own right, but it completely destroys Holst's planned, considered and magical fade-out to Neptune with the female chorus's eternally alternating chords disappearing into the farthest reaches of space.
That said, this is an enterprising pair of discs. Most people will obviously buy them for the Holst work but the new works, specially commissioned by Rattle (apart from Pluto) for this project, are an interesting collection of Plutons and a substantial bonus. Saariaho's Toutatis is the most impressive: she seems to have listened to and assimilated Holst's Planets and filtered them through her own refined orchestral sensibilities. The result is a delicate piece with evocative woodwind textures that structurally reflects the complex orbit of the asteroid after which it is named. The Pintscher is a more overtly exciting item with a wonderfully played virtuoso trumpet cadenza. Mark Anthony Turnage's Ceres is perhaps more familiar territory with its jazzy syncopations and woodwind colourings typical of the composer. Brett Dean, an ex-viola player with the orchestra, contributes Komarov's Fall which has an arch structure leading to and from a big climax, but maybe overstays its welcome a touch. The second disc also includes some CD-ROM material to play on your computer - well produced but it might have benefited from a little less chat and a bit more of the rehearsal sequence.
But what of the main work which will, after all, be the chief reason to purchase for most people?
If Holst later came to find the rich panoply of sounds and textures in the Suite almost embarrassing as he sought a more sparse and ascetic sound world, there is no denying his supreme mastery over orchestration throughout his career. And the Berlin Philharmonic fully live up to all the demands made of them here. With all the skills of the EMI engineers to help them, there is so much on this disc which is ravishing to the ear. From the perfectly voiced and balanced big full orchestra discords of Mars and Saturn to the softest and most exquisite string pianissimos in Venus and Neptune, this is demonstration quality stuff both for sound and playing. The only quibble I can find is that the celeste, magical in Holst's writing for Venus and Neptune, is placed so far forward as to make it almost a concerto instrument.
The performance itself probably comes off worst in the familiar warhorses. Mars is a tad too fast and a bit matter of fact, so that the threatening, disrupting 5/4 rhythm becomes just insistent - rather like the passage in the first movement of Shostakovich's Leningrad that Bartok took to task in his Concerto for Orchestra. The separate sections of Jupiter don't quite cohere into a whole and the `Big Tune' sounds a little as if it's placed where it is because that's what the composer's great friend, Vaughan Williams, would have done.
On the plus side, though, is as breathtakingly beautiful a Venus as you'll hear. The horn steals in after the violence of Mars like a refugee from Weber's Oberon: the woodwind chords are balanced perfectly: and the solo violin and cello are sweetness personified. Mercury has the lightness of step of a Mendelssohn Scherzo with the subtlety of the rhythmic writing for timps and celeste perfectly realised. Saturn is perhaps the highpoint of Rattle's performance, profoundly moving and achieving a climax of huge weight and intensity. The harmonic suspension just before the beginning of the march is superbly judged by Rattle and his players provide a superb luminous quality for the coda. Uranus shows off Rattle's ability to lift and bounce rhythms, though the famous organ glissando at the climax goes for nothing. Neptune is a wonderful study in pianissimo writing and playing - if a little compromised by the prominence given to the celeste. Vaughan Williams must have had this movement in mind when he wrote the finale of his Sixth Symphony.
Two discs for the price of one and Rattle's choice of challenging couplings is more than justified. They come with a performance of The Planets that will certainly ravish the ear and, for the most part, satisfy the mind, too."
The solar system keeps expanding
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 09/20/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It was a clever idea to expand Holst's ever-popular The Planets to include five new pieces that extend the solar system beyond Neptune, the ghostly last movement, to Pluto and beyond. The new additions are as follows: Pluto (Colin Matthews), Asteroid 4179 - Toutatis (Kaija Saariaho). Towards Osiris (Matthias Pintscher). Ceres (Mark-Anthony Turnage). Komarov's Fall (Brett Dean). According to Google, Komarov's Fall refers to the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first person to die in space and whose name was given to the asteroid `1836. So wWat we lack in cocnsistency is made up for by hearing what a handful of prominent, and not so prominent, contemporary voices have to say.
But die-hard devotees will be interested first and foremost in the sonics of this new CD, since it's become a tradition that new recordings of The Planets show off the best a company's engineers have to offer. EMI's sonics are incredibly good. They had already conquered the finicky Berlin Philharmonie for Rattle's reading of Ein Heldenleben, but the sound here is even clearer, more natural, and detailed. I don't think anyone will have any complaints, even though in Mars and Jupiter Rattle is deliberately low-key compared to the all-out assault we're used to. But everywhere else he's so musical and interesting that one leaves completely satisfied.
Now for the add-ons. In Pluto, Matthews clearly intends to remain faithful to Holst's evanescent tone in the outer planets, which he does successfully despite the absence of a discernible melody. It would have been mmore intriguing to paint Pluto the ruler of the underworld. We get celesta and skittering strings evoking a haunted house, erupting briefly into a crashing climax for no particular reason. Agreeable but innocuous.
In Asteroid 4179--Toutatis (named by its French discoverer after an anceint Celtic god that was the protector of the tribe in ancient Gaul--more Google), Saariaho has no astrology or well-known mtyh to follow. So like Matthrews we get other-worldly sound effects, the difference being that hers are stronger and more memorable. Truthfully, this segment could have been named anything and fit just as well in Saariaho's output, but it's striking here.
By the time we get to Towards Osiris, it's clear that nobody is going to match Holst's pop icon, and it might have been better to ask a movie composer like John Williams to complete the suite in the same pop vein. But on its own Pintscher's Osiris, which is more avant-garde than anything preceding, comes off as a trumpet riff with a tough rhytmic dressing, plus the usual doodlings unrelated to key or melody.
Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, brings us back to the familiar Greek world that Holst was inspired by. Turnage, a notably thorny composer, doesn't tax the ear. We get snippets of march rhythm, more doodling on woddwinds of the kind everybody has favored so far, and an actual background melody in the lower strings that scores a bettre impression than anything so far except for the Saariaho.
finally, in Komarov's Fall one expects a mournful elegy or dirge, but Brett Dean has chosen to compose music that begins on the edge of silence (tinkles and twitters separated by long pauses), just as the actual asteroid is on the edge of invisibillity. Dean is skillful at evoking exotic, delicate orchestral sounds--as are all the composers here, inclduing Holst--but there's not anything distinctive. We've now gotten five pieces that seem equally disconnected, a series of striking but not very memorable events. At least Dean goes for the loudest post-Messiaen sci-fi climax.
I don't think it would be effective to perform both The Planets and The Asteroids on one concert program, given how retrograde Holst's tonality sounds beside the others' up-to-the-minute idiom. But all the add-ons are honorable efforts and worth hearing.