Why it has taken EMI so long to release Boult's penultimate recording of
The Planets, I have no idea. It may be because EMI has already released two
of Boult's recordings of Holst's masterwork onto compact disc. Boult recorded
this work no less than five times, three alone for EMI and once for Decca
and once for Westminster. Each version of the work is distinctive and well
worth hearing but it is his final EMI recording from 1979 in late analogue
sound that has been the favorite of most critics. It is certainly his best
recorded and probably best played performance (although the BBC Symphony
in Boult's EMI 1944 recording plays quite stunningly) but I have always found
this New Philharmonia recording from 1966 to be the most magical of all Boult's
Planets, indeed I can't think of a single recording among the legion that
have been made of this work that is superior.
The field is intensively competitive when it comes to The Planets. Star
conductors who ignore Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten have added The
Planets to their repertoire and bad performance of The Planets have been
relatively rare. Some recordings suffer from being bland (Previn's Telarc
remake) or slick (James Levine and Herbert Von Karajan both on DG). My least
favorite recording is the bizarre and plodding Phase 4 Decca recording made
by Bernard Herrmann. Stokowski's EMI recording from the late 1950s is, well,
Stokowski. It's a poor representation of Holst but a fascinating document
of how Stokowski could shape (and sometimes distort) a work to give it his
distinctive sound. The approach taken by most British conductors has been
comparatively straight and this has often resulted in very fresh interpretations
including those by James Judd on Denon, Sir Alexander Gibson on Chandos and
Vernon Handley on Tring. My three favorite non-Boult recordings are, however,
by non-Brits. The Previn EMI from 1974, the Haitink Philips from 1971 and
the Dutoit's Decca 1985 have just that extra amount of personality to set
them apart from the competition. Some may question Haitink's choice of a
very slow and steady tempo for Mars but no one can deny its impact or the
dedication of the music making.
For authenticity, most listeners turn to Boult or Holst himself. Holst's
two recordings of the work are interesting but not satisfying musically.
Whether that's because of the primitive conditions under which the recordings
were made or Holst's inabilities as a conductor is unknown to me. His
performances sound too perfuntory for a work loaded with such brilliant color.
Boult studied the work with Holst and I assume his recordings are the most
faithful representations of all. Among his five recordings, only one is less
than great. His recording for Westminster suffers from some indifferent
orchestral playing. There is nothing to fault in his BBC recording except,
perhaps for the very good but still archaic 78s mono sound. Boult's final
recording with the LPO is the best recorded and contains an absolutely shattering
interpretation of Mars as well exuberant interpretations of Jupiter and Uranus.
Where this performance falls flat, in my opinion, is in the comparatively
rushed accounts of both Venus and Saturn. Venus is taken at such a swift
pace that it could almost be mistaken for Mercury and the closing pages of
Saturn are not as contemplative or calm as the music requires.
The New Philharmonia Planets has no such problems. Mars is as ruthless as
in his later recording and in fact, there isn't much to chose between these
two recordings in any of the extrovert movements. But the 1966 Venus truly
is peaceful without every becoming overly sweet. Mercury is splendidly detailed
and here the New Philharmonia shows itself off as being a virtuosic band.
Neptune may be lacking that very last ounce of mysticism but much of that
may be the result of a rather forward recording balance. The tapering off
of the women's chorus at the end is done to perfection
the work truly
never ends. But it is Boult's performance of Saturn that distinguishes this
performance from all others. The opening tread of those flute and harp chords
is slow and absolutely bone chilling. Boult creates a mood of dreadful
expectation. The works continues its inevitable dissent toward that horrific
climax with a tempo that is steady and unrelenting. Those tinny bells and
brass clang out with tremendous force and all seems death and decay until
the music gives way into music of profound peace and resignation. Boult's
approach is dead-serious and it is his obvious dedication that convinces
more than in any other recording that this is great and deeply profound music.
The Planets occupies a strange place in British music. It is the only "hit"
score by Holst. Its overwhelming success at the expense of his other music
has given the impression that Holst was a "one-work" composer. This is
emphatically not the case and the compact disc has helped to change that
impression. The extra playing time allowed on the CD has meant that each
new recording of The Planets has had room for a companion which, more often
than not, has usually been another work by Holst. This particular disc includes
one of Holst's most exhilarating scores, The Perfect Fool ballet music along
with that great masterwork of British music, Egdon Heath. These are Andre
Previn's recordings from the mid '70s and they sound astonishingly fresh
in this transfer. Previn has great feeling for both works and indeed, you
are likely never to hear a more desolate sounding Egdon Heath. Boult on Decca
and Lloyd-Jones on Naxos are perhaps better at moving the music along while
at the same time maintaining that the same foreboding atmosphere. Nevertheless,
Previn exhibits much the same seriousness of purpose and dedication that
makes Boult's recording of The Planets so unforgettable. This is the recording
I would recommend for The Planets and the inclusion of two beautifully played
Holst rarities makes it all that more indispensable. Plus you have Sir Adrian's
own notes on The Planets that accompanied the original LP.
My Top Recommendation.