Holst: The Planets

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Holst
LABELS: Warner Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Holst
WORKS: The Planets
PERFORMER: Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin PO/
Simon Rattle

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CATALOGUE NO: 3593822
It is good to see yet another eminent musician re-appraising Holst’s Planets and recognizing it for the remarkable and hugely original piece it is. As Simon Rattle says in his introductory note, what is English about the work (mostly in ‘Jupiter’) is ‘distinctly in inverted commas’. He goes on to give a magisterial performance, closely attentive to detail, in which the continental influences are highlighted as never before: Stravinsky perhaps, possibly the much lesser-known Florent Schmitt, and definitely Debussy – I’d never noticed before how close the winding down from the climax of ‘Mercury’ is to the scherzo of La mer. Granted, there have been more apocalyptic renditions of ‘Mars’, but the often-pallid ‘Venus’ is surprisingly ripe and sensuous, ‘Mercury’s flight is well sustained, while ‘Saturn’ charts a slow but compelling journey through desolation to something like transcendence. The climax of ‘Uranus’ is a thriller: a massive build-up, with the famous organ glissando not spotlighted but spreading a great cloud of atmospherics in its wake.

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Rattle also makes the best case yet for Colin Matthews’s ‘extra’ planet ‘Pluto’. The orchestral writing is as scintillating as ever, but with the harmonies more clearly focused its journey – and its connections to Holst – also become clearer. And the two works are not joined (as on the otherwise excellent Naxos version) so the listener can enjoy the Holst in original form if preferred. As for the four new Planets ‘satellites’ (commissioned by Rattle with EMI for this recording), the least attractive on first hearing was the somewhat opaque modernism of Matthias Pintscher’s Towards, and while Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Ceres is full of typically ear-striking colours and textures, it doesn’t have either the lyrical continuity or thrusting logic of Turnage’s best work. Much more involving are Kaija Saariaho’s weirdly exploratory Toutatis (Neptune meets the Northern Lights?) and Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall – a compact, single-minded, tragic musical narrative. Superb recordings complete a more than worthwhile project. Stephen Johnson