5. Gustav Holst, London Symphony Orchestra, 1926

Holst - The Planets (Holst, London Symphony Orchestra, 1926)

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Hi, Gustav! I’m glad to get the chance to hear you conduct your own music.

I’ve heard a few things about this recording. I’ve heard that “Mars” is way too fast, the sound quality is atrocious, and that Holst is a hopeless conductor. We shall see. OK, Peter. Press “play” and…

Ah, this is alright. It’s no worse or better than I’d expect for a recording from 1926. (Actually, I’m not the kind of person who expects anything from a recording, whatever the year – all I do is I hope for the best.)

“Mars” is fast, but I like it. It’s very jaunty. I think the orchestra may be under-rehearsed, because as I’m listening to “Mars” I’m noticing the ensemble playing is not very tight, intonation’s a problem, and there are a few bad mistakes (1:23, 1:26, 1:53). But otherwise, I’m enjoying it. It’s a window into a time gone by. (And how. This thing was recorded in 1926. It’s probably the earliest recording of orchestral classical music I’ve ever heard. I’m a monophobe, and as a result have heard very little in the way of historic recordings.) Wow, here’s something I never noticed before about “Mars”: Courtesy of the limitations of the recording technology of the time and the speed at which Gustav and the lads are playing, the basic rhythm from 4:10-4:20 sounds like Morse code. Considering how most people associate this movement with war, could Gusto have meant the rhythm to sound like Morse code? If so, that just blows my tiny mind. Wow. This recording is even more interesting now. (I wonder if there are any secret messages in the other movements.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any secret messages in the rest of The Planets. (Or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough…)

But I did find a refreshing interpretation of the work, one that (and I don’t believe I’m going to state something this obvious) isn’t encumbered by the weight of previous interpretations. It is its own beast. And for that, I enjoyed it enormously. As critics like to say, “Essential”.

Incidentally, after hearing it I immediately put this at number five in the list. Despite everything going against it (especially the sound quality), it’s an incredibly important document, and belongs in the top five. So it’s number five, and it’s not budging from that position. It’s not going anywhere. It’s number 5.

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