Can You Imagine Sound this Bad from a TAS List Super Disc? We Can, We Played It.

More Gustav Holst

More The Planets / Mehta

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This 2-pack boasts White Hot Stamper sound on side two for the Mehta Planets. Yes, it IS possible. Side two shows you what this record is actually capable of — big WHOMP, no SMEAR, super SPACIOUS, DYNAMIC, with an EXTENDED top. It beat every London pressing we threw at it, coming out on top for our recent shootout. Folks, we 100% guarantee that whatever pressing you have of this performance, this copy will trounce it.

But side one of this London original British pressing was awful. We wrote it off as NFG after about a minute; that’s all we could take of the bright, hard-sounding brass of War.

Can you imagine sound this bad from a TAS List Super Disc record? We can, we played it.

If you collect Super Discs based on their catalog numbers and labels and preferred countries of manufacture, you are in big trouble when it comes time to play the damn things. That approach doesn’t work for sound and never did.

If your stereo is workin’ right this is not news to you. The proof? The first disc in this 2-pack is Dutch. It earned a Super Hot grade in our blind test, beating every British copy we played against it save one. Side two however was recessed, dark and lifeless. Another NFG side, but the perfect complement to our White Hot British side two!

Hot Stampers are the only way to get this problematical recording to come to life, to convey the real power of Holst’s music. The typical copy of this record is dull, two-dimensional, smeary, veiled, opaque and compressed. If you were never impressed with the sound of HP’s favorite — a member of the Top Twelve TAS Super Disc List — this might just be the copy that will change your mind.

Our best Hot Stampers (depending on how hot they are) can show you an entirely different recording: rich, spacious, sweet, dynamic, full of ambience and orchestral detail — in short, a world of sound (no pun intended) barely hinted at by the standard import pressing

Brass with Bite

The best copies get real weight to the brass as well as the bite of real trumpets, trombones and tubas. The thin ones lose the weight and the smeary ones lose the bite.

With the better copies you can clearly distinguish all the elements of the orchestra. You can actually hear where the bass oboe (discussed in the Wikipedia entry) is used. On the best copies the sonorities of this amazingly diverse group of instruments are much more discernible. You will no doubt hear sounds you never heard in this piece before, and that, as I’m sure you will agree, can be a thrill akin to the thrill of the live performance itself.

Side Two (English Pressing)

A+++, and easily the best side two we have ever heard for Mehta’s performance on Decca/London.

It’s big, transparent, and dynamic, with amazing energy. It has HUGE WEIGHT in the brass that only the best of the best copies have. Copies with all the bottom and all the top are rare indeed.

Blockbuster

This is what we sometimes refer to as Blockbuster Sound. It does not sound very much like a live orchestra, nor is it trying to. It’s trying to be huge and powerful in your home.

It’s more in line with a Rock Demo Disc such as Crime of the Century or Dark Side of the Moon, in the sense that everything has been carefully placed in the soundfield, each with its own space and sonic qualities. It’s not the recreation of a live orchestral event — it’s the actual creation of a unique orchestral staging of its own making.

(Which is ironic. HP talked about The Absolute Sound of live unamplified music as being the standard, yet somehow this recording ended up in his Top Twelve All Time Greats. Makes no sense to me, but neither do many of the records on The TAS Super Disc List. That said, our current favorite Planets is the other Planets on the TAS List, Previn’s on EMI.)

Side One (Dutch Pressing)

A++, almost as good! This copy has Demo Disc Dynamic and Energetic sound from start to finish. It starts out a bit smeary but the smear abates about one to two minutes in. The lower strings are wonderful, with texture and body.

Vinyl

Quiet vinyl is also unusual; later Londons (this one is from 1971) are rarely pressed on good vinyl. (Many of the Solti titles from this period are consistently noisy and are to be avoided. They tend to be opaque as well; we’ve played plenty and liked very few. Sadly, London after the ’60s went downhill steeply.)

This one, however, is as QUIET as they come! Mint Minus or something very close to it throughout.

Dutch

The last time around we said, “Don’t bother with the Dutch ones; they really suck.” Seems we were a bit unfair to our Dutch friends. This time around we heard at least one Dutch pressing — this one on side tone — that had very good sound. If you had some of both the British and the Dutch pressings, there’s a chance that one of the Dutch copies might win that shootout. It didn’t win ours but it certainly has the potential to beat the Brits.

Speakers Corner and Super Analogue

Avoid both of the above mentioned Heavy Vinyl pressings. I would award a failing grade to the former; it’s unbelievably bad. I’d go with a C Minus or so for the Super Analogue. It’s not awful but it is bloated and dark like most of the records that label put out. Any good import pressing will kill it.

VTA

Accurate VTA adjustment for classical records is critical to their proper reproduction. If you do not have an arm that allows you to easily adjust its VTA, then you will just have to do it the hard way (which normally means loosening a set screw and moving the arm up and down until you get lucky with the right height).

Yes, it may be time consuming, it may even be a major pain in the ass, but there is no question in my mind that you will hear a dramatic improvement in the sound of your classical records once you have learned to precisely adjust the VTA for each and every one of them. We heard the improvement on this record, and do pretty much on all the classical LPs we play. (All records really.) VTA is not a corner you should be cutting. Its careful adjustment is critical. Of course, so are anti-skate, azimuth and tracking weight. Our Audio Advice section (found under the heading of Commentary on every page) has a fair amount on turntable setup which might be worth checking out.

A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.



The Planets

This magnificent work – The Planets – remains fresh forever and can be listened to over and over without wearing out, comparable in this quality only to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Holst borrowed generously from Beethoven, Haydn, Wagner, Debussy, Liszt, Bruckner, Elgar, Sibelius and Rossini, merging these influences with consummate skill to create a sense of grandeur and universality. This is one of the earliest and most successful works to treat a large orchestra as a collection of small ensembles, with percussion, the harp, and certain repeated rhythmic figures unifying the movements into the perception of a whole. Holst has captured perfectly the fascination of astrology with its grand vision of heavenly phenomena on the hugest scale mirrored in the everyday activities of human beings.

Paul Shoemaker

Wikipedia on The Planets

The Planets Op. 32 is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. The Planets is the most-performed composition by an English composer. Its first complete public performance was on October 10, 1918 in Birmingham, with Appleby Matthews conducting. However, an earlier invitation-only premiere occurred during World War I on September 29, 1918, in the Queen’s Hall in London, conducted by Adrian Boult.

The elaborate score of The Planets produces unusual, complex sounds by using some unique instruments and multiples of instruments in the large orchestra (like Mahler’s Sixth of 1906), such as three oboes, three bassoons, two piccolos, two harps, bass oboe, two timpani players, glockenspiel, celesta, xylophone, tubular bells, and organ (see “Instrumentation” below). Holst had been influenced by Stravinsky, who used four oboes and four bassoons in his Rite of Spring (1912-1913) and by Schoenberg’s 1909 composition titled “Five Pieces for Orchestra”.

Background

The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included). The idea was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology when the two were amongst a small group of English artists holidaying in Majorca in the spring of 1913; Holst became quite a devotee of the subject, and liked to cast friends’ horoscopes for fun. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the human psyche, not the Roman deities. Holst also used Alan Leo’s book What is a Horoscope? as a springboard for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (i.e., “The Bringer of…”) for the movements.

The Queen’s Hall: where The Planets premiered in 1918

The Planets as a work in progress was originally scored for a piano duet, except for “Neptune,” which was scored for a single organ, as Holst believed that the sound of the piano was too harsh for a world as mysterious and distant as Neptune. Holst then scored the suite for a large orchestra and it was in this incarnation that it became enormously popular. Holst’s use of orchestration was very imaginative and colourful, showing the influence of Schoenberg, and other continental composers of the day rather than his English predecessors. The influence of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring is especially notable. These new (at least for British audiences) sonorities helped make the suite an instant success.

Although The Planets remains Holst’s most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and later in life complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He did, however, conduct a recorded performance of the suite in the early 1920s, and he was partial to his own favourite movement, “Saturn”.

During the last weeks of World War I, the private orchestral premiere of The Planets suite was held at rather short notice on September 29, 1918 in the Queen’s Hall. It was hastily rehearsed; the musicians first saw the complicated music only two hours before the performance. Despite this auspicious venue, it was a comparably intimate affair, attended by around 250 invited associates, with a chamber orchestra and choir conducted by Boult at the request of his friends—Holst, and financial backer and fellow composer Balfour Gardiner. An ecstatically-received public concert was given a few weeks later while Holst was overseas, but out of the seven movements, only five were played. After the war, the first complete public performance occurred on October 10, 1920, in Birmingham. Holst himself conducted the London Symphony Orchestra performance of The Planets in 1926.

Instrumentation

The work is scored for four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo, fourth also doubling “bass flute in G” (alto flute) ), three oboes (the third doubling bass oboe), English horn, three clarinets in A and B flat, bass clarinet in B flat, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six French horns in F, four trumpets in C, three trombones, tenor tuba in B flat, tuba, timpani (six drums in total, requiring two players), bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, gong, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, organ, two harps and strings.

For “Neptune”, two three-part women’s choruses, located in an adjoining room which is to be screened from the audience, are required.

Structure

The suite has seven movements, each of them named after a planet and its corresponding Roman deity (see also Planets in astrology):

– Mars, the Bringer of War 
– Venus, the Bringer of Peace 
– Mercury, the Winged Messenger 
– Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity 
– Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age 
– Uranus, the Magician 
– Neptune, the Mystic

With the exception of the first two movements, the order of the movements corresponds to increasing distance of their eponymous planets from the Earth. Some commentators have suggested that this is intentional, with the anomaly of Mars preceding Venus being a device to make the first four movements match the form of a symphony.

One alternative explanation may be the ruling of astrological signs of the zodiac by the planets. If the zodiac signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Aries, ignoring duplication, Pluto (then undiscovered and now de-planetised), and the luminaries (the Sun and the Moon), then the order of the movements matches.

Another possibility, this time from an astronomical perspective, is that the first three movements, representing the inner terrestrial planets, are ordered according to their decreasing distance from the Sun. The remaining movements, representing the gas giants that lie beyond the asteroid belt, are ordered by increasing distance from the Sun. Critic David Hurwitz offers an alternative explanation for the piece’s structure: that “Jupiter” is the centerpoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images. Thus “Mars” involves motion and “Neptune” is static; “Venus” is sublime while “Uranus” is vulgar, and “Mercury” is light and scherzando while “Saturn” is heavy and plodding. (This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, “Mars” and “Neptune,” are both written in rather unusual quintuple meter.)

“Neptune” was the first piece of music to have a fade-out ending. Holst stipulates that the women’s choruses are “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed”, and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance”. Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound – after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst’s daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during “Jupiter”) remarked that the ending was “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter… until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence”.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Mars, the Bringer of War
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

Side Two

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic

Overall Sonic Grade:

Side One – A++
Side Two – A+++

Vinyl Grade:

1) mostly Mint Minus
2) mostly Mint Minus

Cover Grade: 8 out of 10, in shrink.