Naxos Historical 8.111048, 75:40 ****:
Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogen described her father’s conducting technique as clear, unfussy, and economical. “Brimful of nervous energy,” she added. “He cared for each note with a fiery intensity.” Holst recorded his popular suite The Planets between June and October 1926, using the last session to inscribe his little Marching Song, Op. 22. A tight-lipped, martial piece of seriousness, Marching Song might have served Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae. Holst’s tempos are generally quick, the delivery rather literal; but the performances do not lack for interior color and vibrancy. Venus, after the martial Mars, enjoys a lovely transparency of sound; so does the harp part that opens Mercury.
Restoration by expert Mark Obert-Thorn has eliminated many of the pitch instabilities that haunted the prior CD incarnation from Koch. [Also known as “wow & flutter”; see Pictures at an Exhibition review…Ed.] Listening to the scoring of Mercury, we can easily discern the influence of studies with Maurice Ravel, the careful pointillism of wind and string colors. The most-played section of the suite, Jupiter, bustles and bristles with lightning energy, a hearty pomp and rhythmic swing. The wonderful middle section, with its sense of olde England, is conducted in a plain-speaking manner, the acoustic rather dry, but rife with nobility and exaltation. The oboe tune returns all-too-soon; then a supremely muscular rendition of the opening materials. Wonderfully deep, dark colors open Saturn – a combination of harp and grumbling bass strings, a low bassoon. Even the pizzicato strings enjoy a frightful resonance. The fury of the march and its harsh dissonances becomes palpably modern, even by our own acoustic standards. The LSO horn section, the battery, and the low woodwinds achieve an acerbic pungency in Uranus. Allusions, particularly rhythmic, to Dukas? Even given a degree of swish from the antique lacquers, the musical effect is, I dare say, astronomical; the sound of the solo harp suspends itself in the cosmic ether. Finally, a shimmering version of Neptune, the harps as active as anything in a Tchaikovsky ballet. Influenced by Debussy’s Sirenes, Holst employs the wordless women’s chorus with harp accompaniment and low winds. Rather a dazzling affair, this landmark recording that itself is just two decades short of a milestone hundred years old.
Vaughan Williams composed his dynamically aggressive Fourth Symphony 1934-1935; and several commentators see it as indicative of the troubled tenor of the times, with fascism on the rise. Whatever the emotional influences on the piece, it exploits a very tight harmonic structure within the F Minor triad. The score has had three great interpreters: Adrian Boult, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and the composer himself, here having recorded this knotty score 11 October 1937. I would recommend Vaughan Williams’ pursuit of the tortuous Scherzo as a vivid example of the discipline and raw power he could command at the helm of a responsive orchestra. Most curious is the symphony’s Andante moderato, a restless, color-variegated movement whose emotional content resists easy definition. The Finale con epilogo fugato is another vigorously feverish affair, tumultuous and gloomy enough to bear comparisons to passages from Bartok. Producer Obert-Thorn has eliminated an elision of a repeated passage former transfers have erroneously spliced at the side breaks from the original 78s. The surfaces of the RCA Gold Label pressings used for the restoration must themselves have been immaculately quiet. An addition to the Best of the Year, historical-style.
— Gary Lemco