Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Holst The Planets

You'd be forgiven for thinking of British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) as a bit of a "one hit wonder" and indeed it is likely that you may never encounter another work by him. Nevertheless, The Planets, featured in this post (incl Spotify link), is certainly a hit worthy of it's popularity and especially suitable and appealing to those new to classical music.

Gustav Holst

More than a decade ago, when I was still working in a CD store, there were not that many recorded works by Holst available. Of late, there has been renewed interest in lessor known English composers (Alwyn, Arnold, Bantock, Bax, Bliss, Dyson, Moeran, Rawsthorne, Rubbra, etc) including the music of Gustav Holst. So it is now possible to explore additional works by Holst, but whether they are worthy of your time depends on your tastes. The Planets by Holst, is certainly worth knowing.

The Planets was written between 1914-16, four years before Pluto was discovered. The Planets by Holst, therefore, contains only seven movements, one for each known planet and its corresponding astrological character:
-Mars, the Bringer of War
-Venus, the Bringer of Peace
-Mercury, the Winged Messenger
-Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
-Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
-Uranus, the Magician
-Neptune, the Mystic

In 2000, Composer Colin Matthews composed music for Pluto as an addition to Holst's The Planets.

Holst Planets Karajan Vienna Philharmonic

My favourite recording of The Planets is played by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by, Herbert von Karajan. According to Wikipedia, "Karajan is the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records." Karajan is ranked as one of the greatest conductors of all time. It is therefore only logical that he would be featured on this blog. This recording, made in 1961 is one of Karajan's best and most exciting. The sound on this CD is exceptionally rich and full, due in large part to the remastered 24 bit digital sound. This certainly enhances the overall experience of the piece. 

Reportedly, The Planets was a success right from the first performance due to the wealth of good melodies, imaginative scoring for large orchestra and the clearly defined character of each of the movements. 

The highlights for me are:
Mars, the Bringer of War is fierce and frightening, with its pounding rhythms and swelling brass. This movement is strangely reminiscent of the Start Wars score by John Williams. If this doesn't get you excited, then nothing will. 

Venues, The bringer of peace, in sharp contrast with Mars, is gentle, soulful music which exploits the sweet sounds of the strings and hushed beauty of the orchestra.  

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is brisk in pace with exciting momentum. The main theme 2.52 with all its nobility is one of the most memorable melodies and moments of this work.

In the below youTube video, Sir Charles Mackerras (who I feature previously conducting Mozart) conducts the BBC Philharmonic orchestra in Gustav Holst's The Planets - Mars, the Bringer of War.


Links to the recording:

Spotify playlist

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