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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets – Suite for Orchestra H125 (Op.32)* [52:06]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D (from Op.39) [6:30]
*Ladies from the John McCarthy Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Mike Batt
rec. Watford Town Hall, 1993
GUILD GMCD7814 [59:14]

Holst’s The Planets is by far his most popular and recorded work, a fact which gave him little satisfaction, as he didn’t consider it one of his best. But neither did it stop him recording it twice, in 1923 acoustically and then electrically in 1926, the latter with the London Symphony Orchestra (Naxos Historical 8.111048). He did indeed write more finely focussed pieces like the marvellous Egdon Heath, but The Planets is very accessible and varied. Part of that accessibility is that, although Holst was into astrology, he distinguishes the planets as individual characters, so named in their full titles I give below. The question to ask of any performance, therefore, is how successfully it conveys that character. Here it has been recorded by Mike Batt, best known as the composer of On Watership Down and, via Art Garfunkel, Bright Eyes. Yet if you look at the link I’ve just given to a 2010 concert streamed on Youtube available as I write this in October 2018, you’ll see Batt is a calm and meticulous conductor of his own work. But is that enough for The Planets?

First comes Mars, the Bringer of War. With its soft opening gradually increasing in dynamics then varying again, Batt gets across well the sense Mars brings of an army coming into focus from afar, its full mass still only partly revealed, and so all the more scary in its potential threat. There is a sense of corporate will but, for me, it lacks menace, the strings col legno, that is to say played with the wood rather than strings of the bow, not sounding particularly strange. The first instrumental solo, that of the tenor tuba (tr. 1, 2:08) sounds almost a casual command, albeit of inured efficiency, immediately answered by trumpets’ fanfares and soon the high violins having a spree. Briefly there’s exhilaration in the open air, yet the outcome is a devastating, thudding explosion. Batt gets across these extremes well, but only now (3:06) in its soft presentation does he present the main theme sinisterly, chiefly identical 6-note phrases followed by ever varying 4-note responses. Enjoy the clarity, too, of Holst’s adding instruments. At these phrases’ later return (5:38) a series of 3-note descending brass and organ chords are, in Batt’s hands, splattered onto them. The critical strike is made ffff followed by a flurry of woodwind and strings’ flotsam and jetsam. Then the battering resumes. You feel trapped in the habit: Mars the bringer of desensitizing.

I prefer for comparison to use a near contemporary recording. In this case I found one recorded 2 months later by the same orchestra, the conductor this time being Vernon Handley (Alto ALC 1013). Handley’s timing for this movement of 7:26 is unusually slow, Batt is quite slow at 6:55, but Handley’s opening is nevertheless more urgent, threatening. The col legno strings seem here an unnatural, unmusical force, the descending chords that cut across the opening rhythm more biting, the sense in the tuttis of being engaged in conflict more exciting. Handley’s first climax seems more obliterating. His soft presentation of the main theme seems more creepy because of its smoothness. Amassing again is a well-oiled force even in the targeting by those 3-note descending chords, though Handley’s organ is less of a presence. Holst marks the battering of the closing 6 bars rallentando to the end. Taking 0:25 for this, where Batt takes 0:19, both taking 0:05 for the final note, Handley presents the clinical brutality more tellingly.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace (tr. 2), is my favourite character, not because of the melody, which is Holst at his most romantic, but for the sheer sense of stillness, of suspended animation that he conveys. It’s also the antithesis of the collective expression of Mars in the wealth here of instrumental solos, seventeen altogether, which signal peace and allow for individual distinctiveness. Batt achieves an account of fine purity and relaxed gaze. The violin solo is gauzy and ethereal, sweet but also delicate, like the first, diffident steps of a new-born creature. All Batt’s solos are concentrated without being indulgent. The loveliest passage of all is the return at 5:58 of the high first violins, this time muted and pp, tender and affectionate with the silence around that a ‘studio’ recording can secure. Only in the closing section (6:51), when the scoring becomes more dense, does Batt for me become a touch too nebulous and sugary too, given the central focus of the celesta at the end where Handley has it just as a glistening backcloth. Marginally faster, timing at 8:38 to Batt’s 8:46, Handley brings more sense of direction to the closing section: life moves on. Earlier his high strings after the first violin solo have more yearning and the solos themselves are more lusciously expressive, but I prefer Batt’s more abstract manner and, using the term from a painter’s perspective, whiter tone.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger brings from Batt a feeling of enjoying the freedom of flight, riding the air currents when what goes up from the lower strings and woodwind to the upper ones must come down, or rather float slightly downwards, hovering in fewer instruments. The diversion which makes this fun is the disturbance (tr. 3, 0:22) from woodwind and then woodwind and strings. The second interest is that Batt makes a cheeky melody (0:37), or a fragment of one on oboes and cor anglais, like a question ‘Can I?’ To which almost everyone responds ‘No you can’t’. The question keeps being put, the response stays the same but it’s not vicious from Batt, just the order of things. In form this is a Scherzo and the Trio finds the solo violin (1:04) proposing a dance melody, more like a mantra to be endlessly repeated with an increasing lack of inhibition. In this I feel Batt is too genteel, with only the 2 horns really enjoying themselves. The novelty in the return of the Scherzo is feathery passages for strings (2:39) emphasising Mercury’s and others’ wings, those others maybe even becoming combative at times, though Daphne du Maurier’s The birds didn’t appear until 1952. Handley makes them more alarming as he dramatizes Mercury’s experience more. His initial emphasis is not so much on a journey as the messenger’s lightness of texture. He brings a more carefree ‘Can I?’, a firmer rebuff. His dance begins more gossamer but also more exotic and alluring. I wonder, is this Mercury’s message? It’s received with more vehemence, hence the birds’ outcry?

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is in form another scherzo, almost as if the only way we can stomach all this heartiness is by having a Trio tune to put the four tunes which precede it like carnival floats into a great-hearted thanksgiving. Much of this Batt shows as the sheer enjoyment of letting off steam: the first tune a heavyweight parade ushered in, like all the tunes, by horns, but they’re forgotten come the ff repeat by tenor trombone, tenor and bass tuba and 2 timpani. The second theme (tr. 4, 0:28), fanfare-based and subject to variation, is more of a linking device to the bluff but breezy third one (1:05). The fourth tune (1:47), striding like a giant, is ponderous but amiable and capable of glittering decoration, as if the carnival crowd revels in the merriment it introduces. Batt gives us an appreciably stately Trio, perhaps a little too solid, but resplendent too. The dolce first trumpet solo doubling the strings at 3:50 is nicely blended. In the return of the scherzo you can enjoy the fourth tune given a fresh lick of paint in presentation by high woodwind and glockenspiel (7:01). But does the coda work when the Trio tune gets its apotheosis on all the lowest woodwind, brass and strings? Admittedly the tune is rescued by steely trumpets. Handley, timing the movement at 8:00 to Batt’s 8:21, is a touch more lithe, bringing more excited expectation to the parade of fanfares of the second theme, a jauntier third theme with a more clearly enjoyable contrary motion between the generally rising horns and generally falling trombones, bass tuba and double basses. The descending instruments stride confidently for Handley where for Batt (1:05) they chug. Handley brings more pride to the fourth theme while his Trio tune is more overtly, yet effectively, managed in terms of rich opening, growing splendour and especially the opening out of the final blaze. Handley reveals more the soft fantasy and loud Olympian qualities of the movement where Batt gives us a more down-to-earth carnival graced by nobler thoughts.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age was Holst’s favourite movement. I find it both the most haunting and unfathomable part of the work. Here are my thoughts on listening to Batt’s account. Unnervingly gripping about it is the atmosphere. What’s extreme old age like? Here, a desolate exploration of a remote region. A calm yet merciless steadiness as two chords constantly alternate and a theme of rather wary eloquence labours its way across the landscape, the sullen sound of it on bass oboe (tr. 5, 1:26) particularly apt. Yet the trombones give it a shape firm enough to instigate a procession (1:59) and most of the other instruments join in. The potential for a fruitful development is crushed by the shock of a menacing chord and then a more laboured march because its flutes’ theme is echoed offbeat by timpani, harps and double basses. Its progress increasing in dynamic is as sure as that of Jupiter’s Trio yet here seeming inexorable as grating bells, hit with a metal striker, announce a climax which shouts crisis. Is this the final one of old age, death? Then a brief period of virtually no sensation, a relief after crisis, before strings and organ pedal (7:30) signal a new phase with a soft felt striker ensuring docile bells and placement by the climbing strings into a landscape of eternal peace, not that of the picturesque holiday of Venus but the absence of all worldly care. This all works vividly enough with Batt except for the transition between the two states which for me is too amorphous. Timing at 8:43 to Batt’s 9:35, Handley’s faster tempo for the Andante ‘rebirth’ (taking 2:44 to Batt’s 3:22) is advantageous. It makes for a smoother opening which still has an insistent steadiness and a more urgent, dramatic building of the theme. In turn, there’s a more serious intent to the procession, its build-up taut and terrifying. Handley’s organic ‘rebirth’, initiated by the harps with the gathering and contribution of all the instruments, is more cogent.

After Saturn, Uranus, the Magician is relatively knockabout or, if you prefer, ebullient. There’s an opening four-note spell with thunderous timpani punctuating its repeat, elements which frequently reinforce the action. But the dance started by the bassoons that follows recalls Dukas’ fairly recent The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897), in that you picture busy assistants and, like Dukas, Holst has more charming, relaxed moments. But Holst’s, such as the oboe wisp of a theme (tr. 6, 0:59), later on violins, pave the way for a rugged, folksy second theme on strings and horns (1:20). However, its strength of statement doesn’t allow for much repetition. What’s required, and comes, is a vigorous, more purposive parade theme that craves repetition, started in the lower brass (2:36), taken up by all the wind and eventually involving everyone. This huge climax is followed by stillness, the first harp giving out the spell softly, eerily on harmonics, the strings sighing as if in an extended yawn, exhausted after the orgy. The opening dance starts again, quickly climaxes and almost as quickly fades to nothing. With Batt you feel that we’ve had fun, but the vivid fireworks are only transitory stuff within the immensity of space. Handley gets a more stealthy, spiky staccato out of the opening dance which gives it more edge, more of a threat. His folksy theme is more bracing while his parade theme has an eager, carefree abandon, after which his strings’ sighs are more desolate. With Handley, then, his roller-coaster gives us a wider and more colourful range of experience, but he doesn’t get that closing feeling of the vastness of space quite as distinctly as Batt.

To end, Neptune, the Mystic, a movement throughout very soft and with never a complete melody. Despite, and perhaps because of this, Batt captures both its strangeness and beauty. It begins with calm, floating motifs. Then alternating and sometimes changing woodwind chords above tremolando strings and harps give an impression of motion with an abundance of celesta and harp shimmer. The tempo quickens from Andante to Allegretto (tr. 8, 4:09), when the cellos and then bass oboe start a rising phrase passed to cor anglais, second then first oboe while the bass oboe sustains a gently rocking figure. The master touch now is the entirely novel colour of a wordless female chorus sustaining a high G to uncanny, beautiful effect, like that of a trance like state, hence transcendental. The beauty is opened out a little by a dolce clarinet solo (4:44), taken up by flutes, then first violins and finally the chorus when it becomes more mysterious, you might say mystical. My reaction is one of awe that such an environment exists and wonder how it does. The final bar brings two eternally alternating, softening chords ‘to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance’ and Batt is patient about this: the vision doesn’t die but passes out of our apprehension. Timing this movement at 6:54 to Batt’s 8:36, Handley doesn’t make Neptune for me as special an experience as Batt. His opening is colder, icier, the first gathering of movement more agitated. Holst’s structure becomes over-clear: you can see how everything is put together rather than, with Batt, feel the effect. Handley’s Allegretto is purposively edged forward which does give it a more celebratory manner when it reaches the chorus, yet it makes that more human, which I don’t feel is right.

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 is Batt’s fitting, if quite brief, coupling. But it’s a horrible jolt after the end of Neptune and would be better placed before Mars, thereby contrasting the heroic and clinical aspects of soldiering. Its breezy opening section has something of the jollity of Jupiter, whose Trio is another sing-able tune later given words. Here I compared a more recent recording, the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Andrew Davis in 2011 (Chandos CHAN 10709). In Batt’s account I’ve never heard the tuba and third trombone so clear at the outset. Later, when in the opening section (tr. 8, 0:29) the first violins have their accented downward strides over the rising brass, the balance is good though I’d prefer, as with Davis, the trumpets’ doubling the violins more prominent, to brighter effect. At 1:29, where the strings and woodwind have an undulating motif against brass semiquavers, both in Batt could be clearer and crisper and thereby more heroic, as they are in Davis, but Batt is certainly bracing. The famous Trio comes in soft at first in G major, low register in the first violins’ G string doubled only by horns and clarinets. I like the smooth richness and contained yet mellifluous dignity that Batt conveys with just a little expressive swell, as marked, at its climax. In the tutti repeat I thought the bass a touch plodding, given that Elgar prided himself on composing quick marches; but the noble character is well realized. When the Trio theme returns at the end in the full sunshine of D major Batt presents it in all its bloom and density with the well-balanced organ adding grandeur. For me Batt’s brass 3 passing notes at the end of the fourth phrase (5:50) are a bit over-the-top, but only here. Timing at 6:11 to Batt’s 6:30, Davis’ opening section has a touch more purposive progress and he sweeps forward more at the Molto maestoso marking for the Trio repeat, taking it here as an indication of character rather than tempo. The comparative timings here are Davis 0:55 to Batt’s 1:02. This avoids Batt’s slightly plodding bass. Davis gets more fun near the end of the opening section out of the octave drops of the violins, lower strings and woodwind, lower woodwind and brass in turn, all cocking a snook. Davis and Batt observe well the poco allargando marking of the chromatic scale leading to the final tutti of the Trio, hanging the final note a moment in mid-air. For me Davis’ account is marred by too prominent an organ.

Interestingly, the blurb on Presto’s website gives information not in this Guild CD booklet: that its release marks the centenary of the first performance of The Planets on 29 September 1918 and that Batt’s was the first recording made in 24-bit digital technology by the Abbey Road Studios mobile unit. There’s no explanation why it hasn’t previously been released. It’s a good account with, as I’ve indicated above, many fine features, and I think Mike Batt’s fans will enjoy it. Yet in the final analysis it doesn’t have as much character and variety as Handley’s contemporary account retailing at under half the price.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Rob Barnett

 

 




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