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CD Review

The Planets Plus

  • Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32 [51:09] *
  • Colin Matthews: Pluto, the Renewer [6:12]
  • Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952): Asteroid 4179: Toutatis [4:36]
  • Matthias Pintscher (b. 1971): Towards Osiris [7:55]
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960): Ceres [6:40]
  • Brett Dean (b. 1961): Komarov's Fall [7:49]
  • Bonus Video: The Making of the Planets & Asteroids [10:26]
* Berlin Radio Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded Philharmonie, Berlin, 15-18 March 2006
EMI Classics 69690 2CDs 57:24 + 37:27
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Planets Comparisons: Boult/EMI, Gardiner/DG, Mehta/Decca, Steinberg/DG

This is definitely an outer-space recording, but that does not guarantee a compelling listening experience. Rattle has a previous Planets in the catalogs; it isn't very good, and his new one is not an improvement. We also get another Pluto, and I'm still not sure that it deserves a recorded legacy. The remaining works were commissioned by Rattle for this recording; being generous, let's just say that none of them will ever attain the popularity of Gustav Holst's Planets. When I add up these features and include sonics that are disappointing, a "thumbs down" is the best I can muster.

Mars, the Bringer of War: "Thumbs off" for Rattle on this one. He sounds more like a negotiator than warmonger. Most folks want their Mars to be bellicose, extremely powerful and possess a wild abandon with total disregard for person or property. Not Rattle, as he prefers to give us a subdued Mars who ponders rather than acts. Rattle's puny sense of tension is not acceptable, and his brass are ever so polite. I've generally thought that John Eliot Gardiner's Mars is lacking some tension, but Rattle is the "King of Slack" here. If you want the right measure of fireworks, check out Adrian Boult's 8 minute performance. If you want a wild ride, Zubin Mehta's 7 minute reading is quite an experience. For the thrill of a lifetime, William Steinberg offers 6½ minutes of brute force ready to burn down your house and slaughter your family. Rattle times out at 7½ minutes, but his tempo is not the problem; Rattle's conception of Mars is all wrong and entirely boring.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace: After all the poison released by Mars, the calming influence of Venus is the perfect antidote. This is gorgeous music of repose that also presents mystery and sensuality, springtime at its finest. Rattle does much better here than with Mars, but his 9 minute reading is very slow and increases the likelihood for the musical flow to bog down. In Rattle's case, likelihood becomes reality as there are many passages where the musical lines sag, especially when the rhythmic impulses in the score are not strong. Mehta's Venus is a particular favorite; at 8 minutes, it all flows beautifully and Mehta never allows the rhythms to sag. Also, Mehta's sonics are fantastic for the late 1970's and easily best the Rattle acoustics. On Rattle's behalf, I must say that he does a superb job of bringing out all the instrumental detail.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger: Marked "Vivace", this is quick and delicate music with emotions restrained except for the short second theme that breaks out in the fashion of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Schéhérazade". Above all else, a fine performance conveys the image of flight, and Rattle doesn't consistently offer it. It's not that his pacing is too slow; there just isn't sufficient vitality, and it shows right from the start of the interpretation. Listening to this version makes me think immediately of Rattle's Mars that also was short on animation.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity: Easily Rattle's best interpretation of the first four planets. Ranging from a western cowboy section to a regal procession, there is abundant diversity in the score. This is "big" and full-textured music that fills up the universe in contrast to the lean phrasing in Mercury. Rattle handles it all with the expertise one would have expected in the earlier movements. I can't say that he surpasses the comparison versions, but he is certainly in their league.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age: Grim-reaper music that lifts itself out of the abyss in the final section. Again, Rattle does a fine job as he digs deeply into the inevitable despair created by Holst. Rattle's strings are appropriately subterranean, and the big climaxes explode under his direction.

Uranus, the Magician: Rattle backslides with an undernourished reading lacking the high degree of energy, drive, and menace offered in the comparison versions. Essentially, Rattle is too well-buttoned in music that demands a wild streak.

Neptune, the Mystic: Not very mysterious on Rattle's part; no match for the comparison versions.

Other Rocks Up There:

Pluto, the Renewer: I wanted to give particular mention to this ill-conceived piece of music. Holst never composed a Pluto movement, because Pluto was then an unknown rock. So the thinking was to find someone to compose Pluto and attach it to Holst's work, sort of an attempt to update Holst as if he had written a scientific treatise. Well, the Pluto composed by Colin Matthews (b. 1946) is nothing special, but the "kicker" is that Pluto is no longer an official Planet, just another rock in the heavens.

Remaining Rocks: I have nothing against these four new works, but their aesthetic properties bear no similarity to Holst's late-romantic sensibilities of The Planets. Whether they will stand the test of time is debatable.

Bonus Video – Likely the most appealing feature of this production, we get about 10 minutes of visually stunning material.

Don's Conclusions: I've had this recording for a few months, trying to enjoy it but without much success. Rattle's Jupiter and Saturn are exceptional, but the remainder is not very engaging. Each of the four listed comparison versions of The Planets represents a huge upgrade over Rattle's interpretation, and there are many other Planets that also take precedence over Rattle's relatively weak and poorly characterized performance. Given this situation, the primary value is of the newer celestial works and the bonus video. Fortunately and appropriately, the set is priced as one premium disc. If your main interest is Holst, take a pass on this one.

Copyright © 2007, Don Satz