A Planets for the Ages

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Beyond White Hot

  • After a lengthy shootout hiatus we proudly present the best side two of this album to hit the site since 2013
  • Out Of This World sound on side two, where it earned a Four Plus sonic grade for its MINDBLOWING orchestral power
  • Side one earned a seriously good grade of Double Plus (A++) – it’s rich, clear and dynamic, with weighty brass
  • A TAS List Super Disc, with a performance by Previn and the LSO that’s as spectacular as the sound
  • This copy has some condition issues – those of you looking for a quiet copy will have to wait for the next shootout in 2018 or thereabouts

Note that by the second movement on each side the playing condition is quieter, about Mint Minus Minus. The first movement on each side is somewhat tickier than that, hence the EX++ grade.

This copy has a side two that is so off the charts we ended up giving it Four Pluses. A Four Plus copy has to meet a standard higher than our regular top grade, and we define that standard as “better than we ever imagined any copy could ever sound.”

The first side here is doing what the best copies always do — it’s correct from top to bottom, full of energy, transparent, and musical. You would not think it could get much better, and that means it earns a very high grade.

This side two has some of the BEST sound we have ever heard for the work, and that’s saying something considering the scores of recordings we have played of this famous and famously well-loved piece.

Fortunately for audiophiles who love The Planets but are disappointed by most performances, a group that includes us to be sure, the amazing sound found on this copy is coupled with a superb performance.

As you might imagine, on a big system this would make for a powerful listening experience, which is exactly the experience we ourselves had during our recent shootout. This copy actually deserves its place on the TAS List.

Both side earned their strong grades for their powerful energy and orchestral excitement, especially from the brass section, a subject we discuss at length below.

EMI pressings tend to be lightly ticky in the quieter sections and these are no exception.

Side Two

This side is so dynamic, powerful, smooth and natural we felt that it went beyond any other side two we have ever played. These qualities earned it Four Pluses.

The War Test — Side One

War, the first movement, has the string players “bouncing” their bows upside down to create the effect you hear, a technique known as “col legno”. It’s not fingers plucking the strings; it’s the wood of the bows bouncing on the strings. The quality of that technique is so obvious and correct sounding on the good copies and so blurry and indistinct on the bad ones that you could almost judge the whole first side by that sound alone. When it’s right it’s really right.

And of course the players are spread out wider and the soundfield is so much more transparent when these types of sonic qualities are brought out. This bouncing bow test makes it easy to separate the better copies from the also-rans when it comes to smear, resolution, transparency and the like.

The Saturn Test — Side Two

This was the real revelation in our recent shootout (2013). We had on hand performances by Steinberg on DG, Previn and Boult on EMI, as well as Mehta and Karajan on London — well known and highly regarded Golden Age recordings one and all. (I gave up on the Solti with the London Phil years ago; that opaque later London sound just won’t cut it on the high-rez stereos of today.) None of the above could match either the performance or the sound of Saturn on the EMI by Previn and the LSO.

The brass is so BIG and POWERFUL on EMI’s recording that other orchestras and recordings frankly pale in comparison. Until I heard one of our top EMI pressings show me brass with this kind of weight and energy, I simply had no idea it was even possible to play the work this powerfully. The lower brass comes in, builds, gaining volume and weight, then calms down, but soon returns and builds relentlessly, ever and ever louder. Eventually the trumpets break out, blasting their way forward and above the melee the heavier brass has created below.

Quite honestly I have never heard anything like it, and I heard this work performed live in late 2012! In live performance the members of the brass section, being at the back of the stage, were at least 100 feet away from me, perhaps more. When playing the best EMI pressings the brass were right there in front of me, eight to ten feet away. In a way this is of course unnatural, but that fact takes nothing away from the subjective power of the experience.

Only the conductor can stand at the podium, but the EMI producers and engineers (the two Christophers in this case) have managed to put the listener, at least in this movement, right there with him.

The EMI Sound

EMI’s are usually recorded with a mid-hall perspective, which is somewhat distant for our taste. That’s not our sound. We prefer the Front Row Center seats (especially at these prices). That said, when an EMI from the ’70s is recorded, mastered and pressed properly, it actually sounds more like the real thing, more like the live performance of orchestral music in a concert hall.

It’s uncanny how real the best copies of this record sound. For a recording of The Planets it has no equal in our experience.

Previn Vs. Mehta

This 1974 release is widely considered one of the great recordings of The Planets. Previn is simply outstanding throughout. He’s not going after effects, he’s making all the pieces fit.

Of course it trounces the Mehta recording that many audiophiles, HP included, are seemingly enamored with (see the notes below). We certainly never have been. EMI knows how to make an orchestra sound like a seamless whole, unlike the Decca recording engineers who appear to take perverse pride in awkwardly spotlighting every section. (Was it a Phase 4 experiment gone wrong? That’s my guess.)

And the average London or Decca pressing of The Planets is lackluster, so opaque and smeary it’s barely second-rate, a fact that most audiophile record collectors have mostly failed to appreciate since it first appeared on Harry’s Super Disc list.

More Recordings of The Planets