Holst: Orchestral works, Vol. 2

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COMPOSERS: Holst
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Orchestral works, Vol. 2: Beni Mora; Japanese Suite; The Planets
PERFORMER: Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: Chandos CHSA 5086 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Andrew Davis’s last Planets from 1994 remains one of the most exciting in digital sound. So what can he add with this new recording? Two additional works to start with. First Beni Mora, composed 1909 (a year before Stravinsky’s Firebird), which Vaughan Williams regretted hadn’t been premiered in Paris to establish Holst’s international reputation. Beyond its now obvious-sounding orientalisms (mostly transcribed first-hand from musicians Holst heard in Algeria), Beni Mora teems with invention – not least its second dance, a twilight world painted by dusky violas and woodwind who play in 3/4, cutting Stravinsky-style across a recurring timpani part in 5/4. Alas, Davis’s performance is not only sluggish but cavalier: the jabbing chord of the ‘First Dance’ is invariably played forte even where Holst indicates piano. David Lloyd-Jones’s account on Naxos is both more faithful and atmospheric.

Davis and the BBC Philharmonic sound more engaged in the even rarer Japanese Suite, revealing Stravinskyan colours in the ‘Dance of the Marionette’. But they are still trumped in the final dance – this time by Adrian Boult whose ‘Dance of the Wolves’ is hair-raising where Davis is lumbering.

Davis’s new Planets starts with effective enough accounts of ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’, though his ‘Mercury’ sounds rather plodding against his 1994 version, let alone Boult’s fleet and light-footed account of 1979 (on EMI). Davis’s new performance takes off with ‘Saturn’: this may not match the sense of weariness Boult conveys, but its inexorable progress is highly effective, and the bells for once sound as if they’ve been hit by something metallic to suitably alarming effect. ‘Uranus, the Magician’ is done with an infectious sense of showmanship, while the miraculous shades and textures of ‘Neptune’ are beautifully caught in the recording.

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The SACD layer vividly focuses such details as the wooden sticks on bass drum in Beni Mora, and beautifully unveils the tinkling harp textures at the end of ‘Saturn’. However I’m not sure Holst intended the double bassoon to cut through even the fortissimo tuttis of ‘Mars’ with all the finesse of a snoring pug. Daniel Jaffé