Holst: The Planets (UltraHD CD review)

Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. LIM UHD 058.

Between 1914 and 1916, the years of “The Great War,”
English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece
of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, premiering it in 1918. That might help to explain why
the first two segments are about “War” and “Peace.” He named each movement
after the astrological sign of a known planet at the time, not counting Earth,
although the music doesn’t really describe either the zodiac signs or the
planets so much as they express feelings about the various moods of the human

Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first performance and
recorded the work regularly, his final disc for EMI in 1979 one of my
favorites. However, I actually prefer Andre Previn’s 1974 EMI recording of it
with the LSO even more than any of Boult’s, so personal preference is still a
big part of the equation.

Which brings us, finally, to this 1986 Telarc recording by
Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Apparently, both Previn and Telarc
thought so highly of the conductor’s EMI analogue performance, they agreed to
do it again, this time digitally. The thing is, even though the sound is
digital, it isn’t necessarily better, nor is the performance.

The music begins on an auspicious note as Previn and the
RPO introduce us to “Mars, the Bringer of War” with much menacing delight.
Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war.
Is Previn’s rendition this time more compelling than what he gave us earlier? I
don’t thing so; there is just that nth degree of tension missing. Yet it’s
still better than most such readings.

In the second movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” the
RPO’s playing is quite lovely, and for me it is the high point of Previn’s
interpretation of the suite. It’s sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the
rigors of war that precede it. We hear echoes here also of Vaughan Williams’s
“The Lark Ascending,” written a few years before, and Previn was always a
subtle and effective interpreter of Vaughan Williams.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is a “nimble scherzo,” as
the booklet note points out, which provides a little excitement after the
relative calm of Venus. Be that as it may, Previn’s rendering does not seem as
light or as fleet as in his EMI recording.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” follows, a big,
boisterous Bacchanal, which is almost as much fun this second time around for
Previn as it was the first time. Still, it seems to dance in a more carefree
fashion in the earlier recording, this one a tad more rigid.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was Holst’s personal
favorite section of the suite, and Previn gives it appropriate weight. I’m not
sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it.
In any case, it does have some lovely lyrical contrasts that Previn is more
than happy to emphasize.

After that comes “Uranus, the Magician,” the section of
Previn’s ‘74 disc I often use as a demo piece for friends. It has everything an
audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from softest notes to
loudest fortes; it exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra’s
capabilities. As good as the LIM/Telarc disc is, I remain an admirer of the EMI
presentation. Oddly, where Previn is slower in every other movement for Telarc,
in this movement he’s faster and seems a little more matter-of-fact than

The suite ends with “Neptune, the Mystic,” its wordless
female chorus (Women of the Brighton Festival Chorus) fading off into silence
at the end. Previn is properly ethereal as the piece concludes in the
most-distant reaches of space.

LIM’s remaster of Telarc’s Planets is quite good and an improvement over the standard Telarc
product. However, that doesn’t mean it is “better” than Previn’s EMI analogue
recording of a decade earlier. Telarc recorded the music in Watford Town Hall,
London, in 1986; LIM remastered it in 2011 using their Ultra High Definition
32-bit mastering process, releasing the album in 2012. When I say the digital
production isn’t inevitably better than the EMI analogue recording, I mean that
different listeners will have different standards for judging the results.
Since none of us can compare the sound of either recording to the actual
experiences of 1974 and 1986, a person’s appreciation for one recording or the
other becomes a matter of subjective judgment. Which one sounds more “real,”
more “hi-fi,” or more “audiophile” can be very personal concerns.

The LIM/Telarc remastering is surely smoother and more
dynamic than the EMI disc I own (itself a Japanese Toshiba-EMI remastering from
2005). Nevertheless, the EMI is more transparent, with marginally greater
spatiality, dimensionality; the LIM/Telarc sonics are slightly thicker, fatter,
heavier, warmer, and softer, the acoustic environment of each recording
location no doubt the cause for the differences. Both discs exhibit excellent
bass properties and quick transient response. One thing is certain: If you are
already a fan of the Telarc recording, the engineers at LIM have improved it,
so it won’t disappoint you. It’s not a huge, knock-your-socks-off improvement,
but it’s noticeable. Meanwhile, perhaps someday LIM will approach EMI to
remaster some of their classic material; I hope they do, and I hope they start
with Previn’s ‘74 recording.

Anyway, LIM sweeten the deal with a handsome, high-gloss,
hardcover package; a twenty-page bound booklet of notes; and a static-proof inner
sleeve. It’s not cheap, but at least the company gives you your money’s worth.
For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at


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