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Friday, September 6, 2013

A Short Tour of The Planets

An exploration of this English extraterrestrial masterpiece.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The rings of Saturn in ultraviolet light. Image © NASA/E. Karkoschka.
For almost a century, Gustav Holst's The Planets has proven to be among the most durable of concert favorites. This seven-part suite, inspired by the composer's interest in astrology calls for massive orchestral forces, a potent brass section, a pipe organ (for certain passages in the Mars and Saturn movements) and a conductor of considerable  ability. It is also the best-known work by Holst, the British composer with the Swedish name.

The seven movements represent each of the known planets at the time of the work's composition (Pluto was discovered in 1930) and omits Earth. It could be argued that the first four movements (representing the inner planets) form a four-movement symphony  (Allegro-Adagio-Scherzo-Presto Finale) and the three movements (slow-fast-slow) form a second symphonic structure that is played immediately afterwards.

The most familiar movement Mars: The Bringer of War, the hammering, relentless ostinato that makes up the work's opening fast movement. Holst unleashes the brass and percussion, creating powerful surges of sound that recall an army on the march. The relentess orchestral hammer-blows show the influence of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, and the  stark chords remind the listener that this work was written during the First World War. Themes from Mars would later inspire British bands King Crimson, Black Sabbath and Emerson, Lake and Powell.

Venus: The Bringer of Peace is a welcome respite, a lyric slow movement that allows for orchestral colors to brighten and soothe the listener. Mercury: The Winged Messenger is a scherzando with skittering dancing rhythms and a central, contrasting trio section. Then comes Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity, a busy, optimistic dance that offers a sore test for the horns in its noble opening fanfare. The melodic ideas burst forth and flower, with some of them pointing the way forward to the later movements.

Holst's exploration of the outer Planets is much darker in tone. It starts with Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age a lumbering march that requires a full concert organ (with its massive contrabass pipes) to produces the desired effect in concert. This slow, inexorable death procession is followed by Uranus: The Magician, a complex, changeable fast movement that contains the work's trickiest rhythms. A brief slow interlude in Uranus prepares the listener for Neptune: The Mystic. This is the slowest movement, a long Adagio that incorporates an offstage choir of female singers. It is a haunting, wordless contemplation of eternity and the icy void.

The Planets is a widely recorded work, often by conductors who wish to show off their skill with a large orchestra. Here are three good recordings to explore:

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Adrian Boult (EMI, 1967)
Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first performances of The Planets in 1919 and 1920, and was associated with the work for most of his long career. This is an authoratative, expansive performance, paired with Sir Adrian's excellent Enigma Variations recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Boston Symphony Orchestra cond. William Steinberg (DG, 1971)
William Steinberg's tenure at the helm of the BSO was brief but glorious. This is a brisk affair, with Jupiter the standout movement. Paired with an energetic Also Sprach Zarathustra in very fine analogue sound.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG, 1995)
John Eliot Gardiner's career has been linked to period performances of Bach and Mozart. Here, he indulges his abilities with the modern orchestra to produce a detailed, brilliant performance in sparkling "4D Audio". The Holst work is paired with The Warriors, an outstanding work for piano and orchestra by Australian composer Percy Grainger.

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