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Holst - The Planets

Revisiting Holst’s orchestral suite ‘The Planets’ seems an almost naïve undertaking in the 21st century. It’s a classic orchestral score conceived in 1913 before two cataclysmic world wars or any lunar landings, and somewhat Edwardian in feel.

Popular culture has since given us films such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Star Wars’, whilst TV has spawned ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dr Who’. Such is our exposure to these extra-terrestrial fantasies that between the music of John Williams, Ligeti and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, we might think we know what life out in the solar system should actually sound like. How does Holst’s conception measure up after nearly a century?

Holst was of course interested in astrology, not science or sci-fi. ‘The Planets’ is concerned with the characters of the planets and their perceived influence on the human psyche. Notions of inter-galactic combat are not explored, despite the opening movement ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ being the most iconic piece of martial music ever written. Holst’s view of the solar system is essentially a romantic earthbound one, and all the more evocative for that. After so many spin-offs it is easy to forget what an original work it is, but one minute in and you are reminded of its eerie power.

The suite is written for large orchestra and wordless chorus (heard in the final movement, ‘Neptune, the Mystic’). The depth of orchestration and the addition of twinkly instruments such as glockenspiel, piccolo and celesta suggest the infinity of space illuminated by distant stars. ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ is possibly the most evocative of the seven movements – harp and flute set down a bleak, ticking ostinato whilst portentous melodies are spun around it. Other movements are brilliantly fleet-footed – ‘Mercury, the Winged Messenger’ being the most notable example. It remains a superb score.

Apart from the direction of Sir Colin Davis, one of the pleasures of this performance is the presence of the late lamented Maurice Murphy. He and the rest of the LSO trumpet section achieved celebrity on the John Williams ‘Star Wars’ soundtracks, so already had inter-galactic credentials by the time they came to make this recording. Listen for their fabulous flourish in the closing minute of ‘Jupiter’.

James Mallinson - LSO Live Producer

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