Warning: This review is waaay too long. Enter at your own risk.
I’ve heard plenty about Big Jimmy Loughran’s recording. (I don’t actually know if James Loughran calls himself Big Jimmy.) People apparently adore it. They say it sounds warm and inviting, and it’s a great interpretation.
Andy, the guy in this YouTube video, put Big Jimmy’s recording high up on his list of favourite Planets recordings. (He talks about it from 4:17 onwards.)
Something Andy mentioned got me very interested in hearing this version. He said the brass was sometimes out of tune. Bring it on!
“Mars” starts off magnificently. It sounds malevolent. There’s a tiny glitch at 0:12 (a couple of quick-and-quiet clicks), but it’s not bothering me at all due to its tiny-ness. Ah, here’s the first example of what Andy was talking about. At 0:21 the brass is woozy. It’s not out of tune per se – it’s woozy. But “Mars” rolls along, sounding magnificently truculent. 1:52-1:53: Oh dear. A horn (or tuba) player has a pile of trouble with his or her part here. It’s in the background, but it’s there. It’s cringe-worthy. 2:51: Another stray horn (or tuba) note in the background. From 2:57-3:10 the brass section doesn’t sound all that harmonious. Grrr. I hope I don’t spend way too much time picking on the brass section for their misdeeds. (Note to self: You probably will, Peter.) I must point out that, interpretation-wise and sound-wise, this is fabulous. It’s just the brass section. They’re not very… Well, I don’t want to speak ill of people I’ve never met. (Hi, brass section!) 4:32-4:34: That’s incredibly sloppy playing from the brass section. Oh dear. The annoying thing for me is that everything else about this “Mars” is awfully, awfully good. 5:45: A very wrong note from you-know-who. 6:08-6:09: Jeepers, this isn’t good. 6:17: Oh no. Now that “Mars” I can say that the primary emotion I felt was sadness. This is a very good “Mars”, but that brass section almost derails it. Hopefully “Venus” will be better. (How much brass is in that?)
A solo horn starts “Venus”. Gulp. Here we go… Phew. It’s fine. Sort of. From 0:45-1:20 there’s a repeating sequence of notes that the horns play – a higher note and then a lower note – and one of the horns insists on playing the higher note slightly flat. Ordinarily a slightly flat note wouldn’t be bothersome, but to repeat that flat note over and over again is mighty annoying. And what’s even more annoying is that horn overcompensates halfway through his or her part by playing the note slightly sharp. Aaargh! I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: It’s the little things… 1:25-1:40: The intonation of that solo horn is all over the shop. I think I know what I’m going to say about this recording of The Planets when it’s finished: A very good interpretation, very good recording, and all spoiled by the brass. I’m only a minute and a half into “Venus” and already I’m not enjoying myself very much. 2:32-2:49: Now the strings are being iffy with their intonation. Grrr. 3:00: The strings again. Grrr². 5:21-6:04: The strings again, but worse. 6:59-7:59: The brass. “Venus” has now finished. Why is this recording so highly thought of?
“Mercury” – Hooray! It’s as if a switch has been turned on, because this “Mercury” is splendid. Oh-oh. I
spoke typed too soon. From 0:57-1:01 the violins play notes they’re not supposed to in the score. 1:25-1:30: Poor intonation from the strings – and then again at 1:39, and then 1:44. Sigh. 2:29-2:39: The scurrying strings have poor intonation. Egad. This is starting to look like a laundry list of nothing but mistakes. Focus on the positives, Peter. Focus. I’ll say this: “James O’ The Loughran has a great vision of how ‘Mercury’ should be played.” How’s that?
“Jupiter”: I can’t do it. I can’t just be polite and say everything’s fine. Within the first two seconds of “Jupiter” the strings are having trouble. I will say this though: Jimmy Jam’s Jammin’ Jupiter is a-jumpin’. It’s splendid. And the intonation worries aren’t all that worrisome (well, not in this movement anyway). Red Alert. Red Alert: The Big Tune (3:00-4:55) contains some of the worst ensemble playing I’ve ever heard. From 3:44-4:49 you can actually hear some of the players losing their place in the music. It made my jaw drop. This isn’t funny. During The Big Tune my mood changed from “Ah, there’s a mistake, never mind, it’s not a big deal” to one of intense sadness. All of a sudden I realised that these people, who practice their craft for years, record a piece of music when they’re not entirely ready, for whatever reason (budgetary or time constraints, contractual obligations, conductor demands etc.), and it becomes a permanent document of what they did at that moment. Permanent. And it may not reflect their true capabilities. What makes me incredibly sad about this is the combination of conductor and orchestra here has made a great interpretation of The Big Tune in “Jupiter” (with their instruments they sing their hearts out) – but it’s totally undermined by moments of very poor playing. But it wouldn’t be fair to just pick on The Big Tune. All of “Jupiter” is magnificent, but… I have a feeling that’ll be my two-word summary: “Magnificent, but…”. Right, back to the music. 5:53: A horn flub. 7:44: A wildly off piccolo note. And that’s it for the severely compromised “Jupiter”.
“Saturn” starts off magically. I’m listening to it, hoping against hope that nothing untoward happens, and it’s all beautiful… until 1:36. From 1:32-1:49 the bass oboe is playing long, mournful notes, and at 1:36, in the middle of one of these long, mournful notes, the bass oboe honks. That broke me out of my aforementioned sadness, and left me with more a “What the what?” feeling. There’s some less-than-great intonation from 3:05-3:09, but that didn’t bother me much (nowhere near as much as the stuff that happened earlier). At 3:40/3:41 the brass don’t all come in at the same time, but that didn’t bother me much either. What did bother me was the insecure brass playing in the last half of the big build-up to The Loud Bit In Saturn. The brass aren’t all that confident from 5:11-5:25. And at 5:31-5:32 a member of the brass section cracks a note. It’s not pretty. Neither is the sound of a brass section playing an out-of-tune chord at 6:04-6:05. And from 6:11-6:14 they’re even more out of tune. Now I’m starting to feel sad again. This recording was released. To the public. Who bought it. At least the calm part of “Saturn” (6:53 onwards) goes well – until 7:32, where the brass section makes a horrible sound. 8:43: Wrong note from something. However, from 8:49-9:03 the strings are gorgeous. Another lovely interpretation spoiled by various instruments in the orchestra.
“Uranus” begins well. I am so relieved to have typed that previous sentence. From 1:18-1:21 a tenor tuba almost sabotages things, but the I’m-not-playing-this-as-well-as-I-could moment is over quickly. And I can report things I enjoyed. I loved the stereo effect of the wind instruments from 2:25-2:41 (thanks, Jimbo, for putting them in the orchestra where you put ’em). And it’s pretty smooth sailing for the orchestra, right up until 3:32, where a horn plays slightly sharp – but as jazz players like to say, “‘Taint no big thang.” I’m moderately sure there’s a trumpet mistake in amongst all that hubbub at 3:45-3:46 (maybe). 3:54: Dodgy note from someone. 3:57: Another trumpet mistake. (I think.) 5:07-5:11: A brass instrument is out of tune – and stays out of tune for the full length of a long, long note. It hurt my ears. Now that I’ve typed way too much about “Uranus” (and this recording in general), all that’s left is “Neptune”. Please, please, please, please let this be good. Please.
OK. “Neptune” has started, and it’s… very good. There’s one moment of some slightly off intonation (0:34), and someone’s out of tune from 2:09-2:12. But apart from that, I think this is a very good “Neptune”. And the choir is mighty fine.
This review wasn’t supposed to end up as long as it did. I think I got carried away playing “spot the mistake”. Sorry about that.