Holst / The Planets / Previn / LSO – Our Four Plus Shootout Winner from 2013

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The Planets / Previn / LSO

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

This Beyond White Hot Stamper Planets has Out Of This World sound on side two, where it earned a Four Plus sonic grade for its MINDBLOWING orchestral power, especially from the brass section, a subject we discuss at length below. 

This is some of the best sound I have ever heard coming out of my two speakers, if not THE best. Side two of this very copy takes the recording to a level we had no idea was possible. Out of the fifty or so copies of The Planets we’ve played in the last decade or so, this is without a doubt the best side two of them all.

We can only hope to find a side one as good in the next ten years. It probably exists, but will it take us another fifty copies to run into it? Only time will tell!

Side one is no slouch either, earning one of the top grades in our shootout, A++.

Fortunately for audiophiles who love the work but are disappointed by most performances (a group that includes us to be sure), the good sound found on this copy is coupled with a superb performance. The best pressings of this record truly deserve their place on the TAS List. This 1974 recording is widely considered one of the great Planets. Previn is outstanding here; he’s not going after effects, he’s making all the pieces fit together.

Of course it trounces the Mehta recording that most audiophiles, HP included, seem to like so much (see the notes below). EMI knows how to make an orchestra sound like a seamless whole, unlike the London recording which takes perverse pride in awkwardly spotlighting every section. 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 audiophiles have failed to appreciate since it first appeared on Harry’s Super Disc list.

Side Two

A++++, with the huge brass we discuss for Saturn below just JUMPING out of the speakers with clarity that defied belief. We believe it now that we’ve heard it.

No other copy we have ever played had this level of TRANSPARENCY, allowing us to hear every nuance of the performance extending all the way to the players at the rear of the stage.

The top end is extended like no other. The bottom end was massive. Nothing could touch this copy in any area of reproduction.

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.

Side One

A++, and just the reverse of side two: it’s rich and full-bodied but slightly dark and veiled at the start. The top comes back no later than the second movement (as is often the case). Good weight and dynamics, and the brass has the bite of the real thing.

A little smear on the strings makes them sound “tubey”, not such a bad thing with an EMI recording from the ’70s, not one of the stronger decades for Tubey Magic (and of course it’s all downhill from there).

The War Test — Side One

War, the first movement, has the string players “bouncing” their bows to create the effect you hear. It’s not fingers plucking the strings; it’s bows bouncing. 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 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.

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.

Mehta on London

Mehta just does not bring out, in the various movements, the special qualities that allow the music to be more than a mere series of effects. In other words, he (almost) never finds the music underpinning the notes. His Jupiter and Mars may be decent, even quite good in some ways, but the rest are just too mechanical and stilted in comparison to Boult’s and Steinberg’s and especially Previn’s more lyrical approach.

Steinberg on DG

This used to be our favorite performance, but having played so many different pressings, and listened to them all so critically over the last few years, Previn has lately emerged as first among equals for his sensitive, lyrical, nuanced performance with the LSO. I’ve grown to like his take on the work more and more and that of others less and less over time.


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 Two

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

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