Holst: Orchestral Works Vol. 2 / Davis, BBC Philharmonic

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This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

A Gramophone Disc of the Month


HOLST The Planets. 1 Beni Mora. Japanese Suite Andrew Davis, cond; BBC PO; 1 Manchester CCh CHANDOS CHSA 5086 (SACD: 78:25)

As unlikely as it seems, this appears to be the only SACD of Holst’s orchestral tour de force currently listed on ArkivMusic; another on Chesky, with Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, is available on British websites.

Both sonically—in two or five channels—and musically, this is a very impressive Planets . Certain labels have always had a distinctive sound, and this is especially true of Chandos. The sound of this disc is typical of Chandos’s best orchestral recordings: There is more sense of the hall—in this instance Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall—than on most other labels, a feature particularly evident in SACD mode, but the recording still is immediate enough to pack a real wallop. Listen, for example, to the organ pedal in “Saturn,” or the ffff full-organ glissando at the end of “Uranus.” The dynamic range in “Mars” is huge, and the offstage women’s voices in “Neptune” come from some unknown place. The BBC Philharmonic, surely among England’s top orchestras by now, plays superbly; “Mercury” is on the button, “Jupiter” polished rather than ragged as so often heard. The women of the Manchester Chamber Choir sing with pure tone and perfect intonation, again a refreshing change from most versions. Sir Andrew Davis, now a seasoned veteran, gives a reading of which Sir Adrian Boult would have been proud, atmospheric in “Venus,” light in “Mercury,” and monumental in “Saturn.” Put another way, “Mercury” is mercurial, “Saturn” saturnine, “Jupiter” jovial. This Planets would be a high recommendation in stereo; for multichannel listeners it’s a must.

This release is titled Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 2 ; Volume 1, which turned out to be the final recording by the late Richard Hickox, included four ballet scores from late in Holst’s career. (The reviewer for a well-known British magazine cited the “splendid and fulsome sound” of that disc, perhaps illustrating Shaw’s observation that England and America are two countries separated by a common language.) According to Chandos’s Ralph Couzens, the series was to have culminated in The Planets , but the plan obviously had to be revised. Volume 1 was reviewed in Fanfare 32:6 by Peter J. Rabinowitz, who found some of the scores rather weak; I suspect that, rather than marking any decline in Holst’s creativity, the problem lies in the differences between the music Holst wrote for amateurs (including at least two of the works in Volume 1) and for professionals. The three works in the present volume were not only all written for professionals, but date from around the same time: The Planets was written in 1914–16, the Japanese Suite during the composition of The Planets , and Beni Mora (subtitled “Oriental Suite”) a bit earlier, in 1909–10. Of the two shorter suites, Beni Mora , inspired by a trip to Algeria, is the more interesting. The Japanese Suite was written for a Japanese dancer, who provided Holst with the themes; for once (in contrast to the Second Suite for Military Band and his many choral folk-song settings), the themes seem to limit Holst’s imagination, and the work lacks the vitality of Beni Mora.

The shade of Boult looms large over these performances; his recordings of the two shorter works for Lyrita (SRCD 222) still sound terrific, and are a bit more incisive than Davis’s mostly admirable readings. As for The Planets , of course, Boult was the conductor of the informal first performance in 1918, and his five recordings, particularly the two stereo versions for EMI—dating from 1966 and 1978!—are uniquely authoritative. But Davis’s interpretation is compelling in its own right, and Chandos’s sonics blow away even EMI’s fine sound. This SACD is superb both musically and sonically, and Davis’s grasp of Holst’s idiom bodes well for further volumes in Chandos’s Holst cycle. Highly recommended!

FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CHSA 5086

  • UPC: 095115508626

  • Label: Chandos

  • Composer: Gustav Holst

  • Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra