COMPOSERS: Holst * R Strauss
ALBUM TITLE: Holst * R Strauss
WORKS: R Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Holst: The Planets
PERFORMER: CBSO Youth Chorus; National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/ Edward Gardner
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5179 (hybrid CD/SACD)
With its opening fanfare instantly recognisable to most people from its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra appears an obvious coupling with The Planets. Yet it is doubly appropriate, since Holst as a trombonist performed in several of Strauss’s tone poems under the composer’s direction during the 1890s. One can hear, for instance, elements of Zarathustra’s ‘Der Genesende’ (‘The convalescent’) – high strings shuddering a Morse-like rhythm, the glint of glockenspiel – which Holst then transformed into his own distinctive ideas in The Planets.
Here these showpieces are played with all the zest and freshness one may hope for from these highly skilled young musicians. Woodwind and brass are as fine as one might expect (though the recorded balance rather pushes the trumpet fanfares in ‘Mars’ into the background). But what is especially encouraging is how superbly the strings rise to the formidable challenges of the Strauss, with its multiple divisions of up to 14 parts: the violas are invariably rich and true, and the lead violinist fully manifests the Viennese Schwung for the culminating dance.
It perhaps does not require a conductor of Edward Gardner’s calibre to inspire such lively performances of The Planets from these young musicians – ‘Mars’ is truly exhilarating. But credit is surely due to him for the sensitivity shown in even such restrained movements as ‘Venus’, beautifully and sensitively shaped, and ‘Saturn’, nobly paced and with a beautifully realised transfiguration, the only disappointment being the rather lightweight bells at its clamorous central climax.