37. Mark Elder, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, 1998

Holst - The Planets (Elder, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, 1999)


Wow. I’m only 20 seconds into “Mars”, and I’m already loving it. This starts so well. It sounds ominous, as if it’s an enormous beast roaming around the countryside, surveying its surroundings. (Can the beast have red eyes as well?) As “Mars” progresses it remains ultra-slow – and I don’t mind a bit.

By the way, this is a live recording (from the 1998 Proms). It sure doesn’t sound it. (There’s no coughing, or any extraneous noises of any sort that might make me go “Grrr”.) Back to “Mars”.

This is a monumental view of the work. It’s simply relentless. Or maybe it just feels relentless because it’s slow. Who knows? I might have mentioned this earlier (like in the first paragraph), but I am loving it. At 3:26 is the major orchestral kablammo, and it sounds ginormous. For a live recording, this sounds excellent. (Thanks, BBC sound recording crew!) The sound quality is so good it allowed me to hear a horn (or tuba) play a little mistake at 4:33, and then a tuba (or horn) playing a bigger mistake at 4:34. Considering The Planets is a mistake-prone piece (I’ve yet to hear a mistake-free Planets CD), I’m glad it took four-and-a-half minutes before someone made one. But if more appear (odds are they probably will) I won’t be all that bothered.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. halfway through “Mars”.

It’s now 4:36, and the march has reappeared. It’s fabulous. I’m enjoying Mark Elder’s view of “Mars” as a thoroughly sinister piece of music. (At least, that’s how I think he views it. He sure doesn’t think of it as a bucolic reverie.) The shaping of dynamics in this march section (4:36-6:18) is excellent. Thanks, Mark, for not simply making this section go Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!.

“Mars” has now finished. It was splendid. I must say that, as a concert experience, I thought this was great. It might not please some people sitting at home, listening to it in the comfort of their impatience to hear something speedier, but I wallowed in its take-your-time approach. I would have loved to have been at that concert.

I’m blathering. Time for the next track.

“Venus” is…

Extraneous Noises Alert: Grrr. In the first seven seconds we get to hear a cough (0:01), a click (0:03), and another click (0:07). Ah well. It’s a concert. But as for the interpretation: lovely. This is gorgeous. The sound quality is really helping this “Venus” sound as good as it possibly can. (And it sounds wonderful.) 1:54: Cough. Never mind. Surprisingly, this “Venus” is relatively fast. I don’t think I’ve heard it this fast before. It’s certainly not suffering because of it. I’m just a bit surprised. Now it’s a bit slower. Now it’s a bit faster. I’m enjoying this “Let’s not play Venus at the same speed all the way through” way of playing “Venus”. However, Marko The Mark Mark’s approach is a little throbby in places (i.e., the instruments that are playing continuously are playing their parts with a fairly insistent beat – they’re letting you know they’re going one-two-three-four in each bar). But a however to that however: The solo instruments are all wonderful. It’s a lovely “Venus”. It’s not what you’d call “dreamy”, but I enjoyed it.

“Mercury” is mighty decent. Everyone’s in tune (well, almost everyone), it’s not too fast, not too slow. Mighty decent.

Now for “Jupiter”. There’s a slight false start from what sounds like a violin (it’s very minor). Oh dear. The horns, from 0:05-0:11, sound like they’ve lost the pulse of the music. But when everyone joins in (0:15-0:19) to play the tune the horns played weirdly a moment ago, it’s all fine. (Or, as I sometimes see written on music scores: Al fine. And that’s the worst music joke you’ll see all year.) At 1:10 there’s a slightly flubbed horn note, but that’s nothin’ – this movement is going well. 2:02: Wrong horn note. No problem. It’s all still going well. The Big Tune (3:02-4:50) is yummy. At 5:37 there’s a stray note from something (I have no idea what), but it’s still enjoyable. The reappearance of the Jolly Tune (5:55-6:17) is splendid. There’s a cute little toot from a trumpet at 7:11. (It’s a wrong note, but it sounds cute.)

“Jupiter” has just finished, and I’d like to be the first, second, and third person to say I enjoyed it very much.

“Saturn” is excellent. I’d like to say all the things I adore about this “Saturn”, but I can’t – it’s one big mass of excellence. (Even the cough at 3:21 is quietly reverent.)

“Uranus” is fantabulous. (I was going to say “excellent”, but I’ve already used that word.) All the tricky brass bits are handled with aplomb. (Except for a wayward trumpet at 3:47.) Oh, I just thought of a much better word to describe this “Uranus”: rollicking. This “Uranus” is rollicking.

“Neptune” is magical. And the disappearance of the women’s choir at the end is amazing. The disembodied ladies’ voices just float off into the infinite. Now, I’m fully aware that because this was a concert, the ladies were standing in a room off the side of the stage, and they kept singing while some dude slowly closed the door to that room. But still, as recorded by the BBC sound recording guys (thanks again, guys!), it sounded like the ladies floated off into the infinite. Amazing.

Now that I’ve heard all of this live version of Mark The Younger Elder’s Planets, I want to hear it again – and soon.

As a live recording it’s magnificent. Simply as a performance (ignoring the “live” aspect), it’s magnificent. As people in the land of Americans like to say, “This is a keeper”.

Unfortunately, I can’t find this 2008 Proms recording anywhere online for you to hear. How about you listen to the 2009 Proms performance of Them Planets with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting instead? You can imagine it being Mark Elder and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales…


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