I’ve been told (well, I read it on a couple of web pages) that Vernon Handley’s version of These here Planets is definitely the one to buy. The word on the
street web pages is that it’s better than everyone else’s. I’ll put on my skeptical hat and say “We shall see.”
I’m listening to “Mars” now, and I have to say it’s pretty good. Actually, it’s very good. No, make that excellent. While I’m listening I’m noticing a few things. One is that Vernon Handley has a sure hand in every aspect of this movement. (He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s doing it exceptionally well.) Another is a little detail that at first I didn’t like, but now I do. In the middle of “Mars”, when the orchestra goes all woozy (3:09-4:16) and at the end of it they start the pummelling march. In that last second before the march, the orchestra’s volume decreases very quickly (or a “rapid decrescendo” if you want to get fancy). At first I was annoyed, but then I went back and played it again, and then it made sense. It sounds like the orchestra is dying. As for the rest of “Mars”, it’s unbelievably sure-footed. While the march continues relentlessly, my brain is saying “Go! Go! Go!”. When the orchestra went blam! for the last time (6:11-6:19), my jaw dropped. This is magnificent. This is a “Mars” to play as loudly as possible. Trivia: Near the end of “Mars”, when the orchestra starts scurrying about (6:39-6:47), building up to the death throes (starting at 6:47), there’s a horn note in amongst all that hubbub (at 6:42) that I can’t find anywhere in the score. I’m reading along with the music, but I don’t see a solitary horn note. Odd. Maybe it’s an enthusiastic horn player’s way of saying, “Just one more note. I just want to play one more!” Anyway, the death throes are mighty brutal, in keeping with the rest of this bruising “Mars”.
“Venus” is interesting. I like how there’s not a trace of sentimentality or saccharine-ness in it. There are a few moments of slightly dodgy intonation from the violins (1:49, 1:50, 2:24, 2:42, 2:46, 3:04-3:06, 5:48, and elsewhere), but they are slight. This orchestra’s not alone in that regard – a lot of other versions of “Venus” have the same problem. (“You fiend, Holst, writing difficult violin parts!”) The solo cello at 4:37: Oops. The last minute or so (from 7:36 onwards) is played with lovely delicacy. This was a very nice “Venus”. The blend of the instruments as they come in, one after the other, from 5:18-5:39, is beautiful. And I think I put way too many commas in that previous sentence. The more I’m listening to Tod Handley’s The Planets, the more I’m realising it’s a remarkably clear-eyed interpretation. The recording quality helps enormously here, because it’s excellent. You can hear everything.
“Mercury” has bags of character (try the instrumental interplay from 1:53-2:20 – marvellous). While “Mercury” is playing, I’m thinking to myself, “This is one of the best ‘Mercury’s I’ve heard.”
Thanks to the recording quality, this is one of the brightest “Jupiter”s I’ve come across. At 1:00 there’s a tiny horn mistake. (It’s a slightly cracked note, but it happens so quickly you might not notice it at all.) Actually, I reckon the sound quality might be not helping this “Jupiter”, because as it’s progressing I’m finding myself wanting it to sound more mellow. (“Tone down the treble, guys!”) This applies especially to the Big Tune (3:11-4:57). But on the upside, I can hear everything with unrivalled clarity. Oops Moment: There’s a noticeable edit at 5:43. Despite that audible awkwardness, the rest of “Jupiter” is mighty good. I like the final chord (7:53) – it’s a great orchestral exclamation mark.
“Saturn” is excellent – apart from a tiny niggle. Niggling Niggle: I wanted the cellos and double basses playing that walking bass line from 1:44 to be louder, and to be a bit more gruff. But that’s neither here nor there. The orchestral balance when the organ comes in near the end (from 6:57) is absolutely wonderful. I could listen to that all day. (And the extremely high quality of the recording lets me hear the tone of the bells in this section. Yowser.) This is a
splendid marvellous magnificent “Saturn”.
Trivia Question: What’s the sound in “Uranus” at the end of the timpani-thwackin’ (0:16)? I’m asking because I don’t know. It sounds like a bassoon going “bluh-blub”, but nothing – not even a bassoon – is mentioned in the score at the end of that timpani-thwackin’. If you have any clues, feel free to let me know. OK. I’ll try to stop wondering what that “bluh-blub” was and pay attention to the rest of “Uranus”. Oh, this is good. The orchestra sounds like it’s having a great time. It’s playing so well. “Uranus” has just finished, and I’d like to revise that “good” to excellent.
Now for “Neptune”. Woah, I’m only 30 seconds into “Neptune” and already I’m thinking this is exactly my kind of “Neptune”. It’s not just full of mystery, it’s full of Mystery Plus (i.e., “Secrets of the Universe” kind of mystery). 2:17-2:23: Those violins. Wow. Spooky. And the low organ note at 3:04: Extra wow. It felt like the floor gave way, or a bottomless pit opened up and I fell into it. Wow. I am absolutely loving this “Neptune”. Along with “Mars”, this might be the best performance on the CD. The women’s choir has come in at 3:42, and I’m so relieved it’s excellent. The ladies are possibly a little too loud for their ethereal fade-out (they certainly take their time getting quieter), but I don’t mind at all – not when I just spent the last three-and-a-half minutes listening to what I just listened to (i.e., the ladies warbling away in an exceedingly pleasant manner).
All up, this is a darn-tootin’ (Translation: very good) recording of Da Planets.
Update: Now that I’ve listened to it a couple more times, that x-ray-clarity recording quality is beginning to bother me. Having a view inside everything may work wonders in recordings of other works, but for These Planets I think it’s a little unhelpful. Vernon The Handy Handley Handiman and his crew do an admirable job (see above paragraphs), but the forensic approach is getting on my nerves a little more with each listen. But it’s still awfully good.
Update 2: I just listened to it again, and this time the previously-thought-of-as-fierce sound quality didn’t bother me at all. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I had no trouble at all with the sound this time. Weird.
And I hope I don’t pester you with more useless updates.