A quick guide to the best recordings of The Planets
When Gustav Holst combined his brilliant creative musical mind with his keen interest in astrology, the result would become one of the best loved orchestral works of all time.
‘As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me,’ Gustav Holst once said about his interest in astrology. That was true enough, but Holst’s claim does less than justice to the depth in which he studied the subject – in fact, it was through those studies that Holst finally overcame his sense of failure as a composer.
By 1913 he had composed several works now recognised as among his most significant, including two major operas – the epic Sita (1899-1906) and the chamber opera Savitri (1908-09) – the oriental suite Beni Mora (1912) and his ambitious choral work The Cloud Messenger (1913), yet all of these had either failed to reach performance, or had been given disastrous or indifferently received premieres.
Encouraged by the writer and fellow astrologer Clifford Bax (brother of composer Arnold Bax), Holst soon acquired texts ranging from the English astrologer Raphael (1975-1832) to the contemporary Alan Leo.
Although The Planets, composed 1914-16, opened new avenues in Holst’s treatment of tonality and structure, it did not represent an entirely new chapter in his creativity. Rather, it crystallised much of his thinking, both in terms of musical potential and in his understanding of the human condition.
Looking at The Planets through the context of what he had previously composed, and what came after, helps us to understand not only one of the most loved works in the modern orchestral repertoire, but also the extraordinary creative mind behind it. Join us now on this journey, as we visit each planet in turn, and recommend their finest recordings…
Philharmonia Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 575 8672
As ‘The bringer of war’, Mars needs to be brash, brutal and unsettling. Rattle and the Philharmonia, in their 1987 recording, deliver in spades.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Virgin 561 5102
Bringer of peace? Venus can appear as the bringer of blandness. Not in this 1990s recording, thanks to the RLPO’s characterful playing.
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
EMI 567 7482
You’d be surprised how many conductors plod through this most sprightly of the Planets. But Sir Adrian Boult’s ‘Winged Messenger’ from 1978 flits and darts with sparkle.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
This 1945 classic recording was, one reviewer said at the time, the first to make The Planets shine. There’s drive, energy and bundles of fun. Don’t be put off by the sound quality.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/George Hurst
An obscure Planets from 1974 comes up trumps – Hurst and his Bournemouth forces brilliantly guide us from the horrors of impending old age to a gladdening new wisdom.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Hadley
Alto ALC 1013
Crashes and bangs galore, as the spellbinding Handley terrifies and enchants in equal measure in this rumbustious version of Holst’s ‘Magician’ from 1993.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 369 6902
Rattle captures Neptune’s magical pianissimo opening and, when it enters, the choir seems to float weightlessly – there’s a sense of gazing into the infinite universe.
Listen to our ultimate Planets playlist here:
This article first appeared in the June 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine.