GUSTAV HOLST cond. the London Sym. Orch. = The Planets – Acoustic Recording; The Planets – Electrical Recording; St. Paul’s Suite; Beni Mora; Songs Without Words – London Sym. Orch. and Women’s Chorus/ The String Orch./ Gustav Holst – Explore Multimedia (2 CDs+CD-ROM)

by | Jun 6, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

GUSTAV HOLST conducting the London Symphony Orchestra = The Planets – Acoustic Recording; The Planets – Electrical Recording; St. Paul’s Suite; Beni Mora; Songs Without Words – London Sym. Orch. and Women’s Chorus/ The String Orch./ Gustav Holst – Explore Multimedia ExM008 (2 CDs + Multimedia video on album artwork and Holst bio/Holst Birthplace Museum, 58:51, 42:22, 36:27 [] ****:

Producer Daniel Earnshaw and Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn  have collaborated – in concert with the Holst Birthplace Trust – on an impressive Gustav Holst Complete Recordings set, which some collectors will recognize – for the acoustic recordings (1922-1924) of The Planets, St Paul Suite, Beni Mora; Songs Without Words: Country Song and Marching Song– as having been issued on the Pearl Label some twenty years ago (GEMM CD 9417), but here imbued with new, resonant life, at least so far as acoustic records permit. [Pearl didn’t care much about that…Ed.] The set provides Holst’s alternate version of Saturn and Jupiter, unreleased in any format since 1926.  Obert-Thorn used the unique Celemony Capstan software to ensure pitch steadiness [as does Pristine Audio…Ed.]  Please note that no accompanying booklet or liner notes obtain in this set, but I have followed Mark Obert-Thorn’s print-out as to recording date attributions.

There certainly has been an improvement in the orchestral definition, where formerly specific instruments could barely be discerned or simply dropped out. Holst’s abilities with an orchestra, his driving impetus in the Mercury, the Winged Messenger section (23 August 1923), for instance, provide a template for future conductors who too often lose the color balances.  Unfortunately, the acoustic space simply does not accommodate the large sounds in Mars (30 October 1923) and Jupiter (27 October 1922), the peaks sound muffled or compressed. But the musical information Holst imparts, the graduated marcatos in Jupiter, strike me as revelatory.  While Saturn (30 October 1923) moves cleanly, the opening of the militant Uranus, the Magician (24 August 1924) starts a bit muddily, though the pizzicatos and interior wind motives now make stratified sense.  Still, the LSO strings lack luster and the horns substantive texture, the price of pre-electrical engineering. Neptune, the Mystic (6 November 1923) actually benefits from the “veiled” acoustics of the period.  The harp riffs stand out clearly, and whatever “ghostly” effects the woodwinds achieve seem appropriate to the general pianissimo reqired . The wordless women’s chorus leaves us in a rarified aether that the Strauss Zarathustra could envy. Obert-Thorn attaches acoustical remakes of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (15 September 1925) and Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (18 February 1925). The Jupiter moves more briskly than the approved version; the retaken Saturn takes longer to succumb to senescence.

While electrical recording marked a distinct improvement in the sound reproduction process, Obert-Thorn informs us that these electrical originals of The Planets (June-October 1926) suffered pitch dropouts that he has corrected. The later version, besides improved sound, urges the music faster, most notably in Venus, the Bringer of Peace (rec. 2 July and 14 September 1926), almost a minute less in duration without Holst’s losing the serenity dispersed by the combination of harp, celesta, woodwinds, and solo violin and cello. The celesta assumes a Mendelssohnian flavor in the spry Mercury movement, assisted by harmonies and colors – including an active tympani – that achieve a busy mix similar to that in Debussy’s La Mer. Jupiter (22 June 1926) quite dazzles for both agility and pomp, the regal middle section’s more than insinuating that a large corner of Holst’s cosmos “will be forever England.”  Holst imbues Saturn (rec. 14 September 1926) with a somber dignity of pace, almost a dirge in B Minor for that same Lost Generation allegorically ruined by a world war and exhumed in the Abel Gance film J’Accuse.  Optimism returns with vigor in the martial Uranus (2 July 1926), the LSO brass and tympani in resonant swagger. The last pages of Neptune, the Magician dissipate directly into the fragmentary ethos of Neptune, the Mystic (22 October 1926). The high G of women’s voices clearly sounds forth over a dozen measures, having been born from the harps and various ethereal instruments and then fading into eternity. A luminous performance for any age of recording, but this reading has the eternal glow of the Master’s hand in command of every color-stroke.

Disc 3 opens with Holst’s leading The String Orchestra (22 August 1924) in his 1905 St. Paul’s Suite, conceived for his Hammersmith, London school’s own orchestra. The singular Jig bristles with excitement, despite the tinny string sound. The irreverent Ostinato assigns the four-note “headstrong” motif to the second violins. A high-register violin solo, a bit shaky, leads the Intermezzo, which suddenly picks up speed and volume, fff, of the opening tune. An English country dance, the Dargason, leads off the Finale, another study in ostinato. The repetition concedes to the music from Greensleeves in affectionate round. If Holst had better sound, this reading would easily replace my particular favorite, led by Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Holst’s 1910 exotic three-movement suite  Beni Mora results from his trip to Algeria and his reading of Robert Hitchin’s The Garden of Allah.  Holst leads his performance of 14 February 1924, allowing the LSO a luxurious display of colors, even under the adverse conditions of acoustical engineering. The third section, “In the Street of Ouled Nails,” retains its fame for the bamboo flute motif Holst heard and transcribed into wonderfully inventive harmonies. The sound of that flute, however, must be boosted by your modern equipment to enjoy its hypnotic allure.

Holst’s interest in the trombone led to his composing music for wind band, and the 1911 Second Suite features a number of folk melodies that suit his purpose. The “Country Song” (1 September 1924) uses counterpoint to highlight “I’ll Love my Love.” The music becomes a kind of oboe concerto in bright colors in pentatonic scales. The Marching Song (14 February 1924) incorporates two songs, “Swansea” and “Cloudy Banks.” Since the latter utilizes a euphonium and brass choir, it could and would be well served to have an electrical recording (14 September 1926) whose quicker tempo and ingratiating sonics make this morris dance even more attractive to a taste for national airs.

You may then browse to your CD-ROM  drive and click MACOPEN for the enclosed multimedia section that contains video and picture gallery materials.

—Gary Lemco

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