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CD Review

Gustav Holst

The Planets, Op. 32 (H. 125)

Women of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
Telarc CD-80466
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Also available on DTS-encoded CD:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic

Yoel Levi had a number of successes on disc during his tenure at the helm of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. From an artistic standpoint, he was far more consistent than Robert Shaw had been, though he was less adventurous than his incumbent successor Robert Spano. Under Levi, the Orchestra continued and enriched a prize-winning relationship with Telarc, giving us new and superior-sounding versions of great orchestral blockbusters.

Telarc has a habit of recording pieces over and over again – for a small label, two Carmina Buranas and three great recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition seems a bit much – and both this and Paavo Järvi's version are excellent. There's no coupling here, but both the sonic picture and playing are superb. Mars really rocks without rushing, while Venus has some gorgeous details that are all tremendously audible. The first-desk strings and winds are especially noteworthy. Mercury flies with absolutely no loss of clarity, and Levi balances everything with the utmost care. Jupiter is more measured than usual, but never stuffy. There's a huge range of dynamics and flexibility of pulse here. The famous tune in the middle ("I Vow to Thee, My Country") is delicious; flowing, elegant, but somehow anti-British. It sings rather than marches, and while some may miss the upper-crust feeling, I didn't.

The second half of the work is just as fine. Saturn has a sense of timelessness and inevitability without ever dragging. Telarc's typically excellent engineering shows off the magnificence of the Atlanta Symphony with realistic balances and the climaxes pack a wallop at higher levels. Details like the harp and low strings are brilliantly captured. In Uranus, there's a real sense of menace; the low woodwinds are full of character and Levi doesn't rush into the low brass fanfares at the expense of detail. The rest of the poem is ideally paced, with the end result one of the more majestic versions on disc. Neptune features the Women of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, and there can be no higher recommendation than that. The blend of the winds to open the movement is beautiful, and again the harp is perfectly present. Subtitled "The Mystic", the playing actually matches the description with a kind of film-score eeriness. Many great versions of this work share this trait, but few sound as good. The chorus fades out at the end, just as it should, and the entire disc earns a hearty recommendation. For those of you wondering, Paavo Järvi's Cincinnati version – which I will review in 2015 as well – has more music, containing a stunner of a Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. But that also means a clumsy duplication, as the latter comes from Järvi's acclaimed Britten/Elgar program. Should you only want The Planets in Telarc's famous sound, this is the disc to get.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman