76. Lorin Maazel, Orchestre National de France, 1981

Holst - The Planets (Maazel, Orchestre National de France, 1980)

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Before listening to this beastie, I’d heard on the electronic grapevine (i.e., the Internet) that Maazel’s Planets was a shocker – and I don’t mean it’s shockingly good. No sir/ma’am. I’d heard that it was, and I quote, “the worst of all the planets recordings.” Somebody else said, “Bad, Bad, Bad sound.” And someone offered this: “the WORST, and one of the worst CD’s of all time.”

I was exceptionally keen on hearing it. I would love to know how bad a recording of The Planets could be.

I’m now listening to it.

“Mars” is slow. Slow is fine. I can live with slow, as long as it’s menacing. This is as menacing as a puppy dog. Wow, that’s sloppy playing from the violins. It’s as if Lorin (Hi, Lori!) instructed his violinists to play as sloppily as possible. (“OK, chaps: Sul ponticello, stringendo, legato, pizzicato – all at once please.”). There an impressively bad note at 1:41, and the orchestra is not entirely in tune from 2:51-2:55. That’s fairly manageable, but a little while later (six seconds later to be precise) the brass section is woefully out-of-tune with itself from 3:01-3:09. That was painful to hear. But at least the big bang at 3:25 was OK.

It’s here, at the halfway mark of “Mars”, that I’m thinking, “Everyone involved with this recording was happy for it be released? Really?” And then I thought this recording must have been one of those contractual obligation things, where an artist is required to record something, anything, to fulfill his or her contract. That must be it. Otherwise, I’m back to thinking my original thought (i.e., “Everyone involved was fine with this going out to the public?”).

Speaking of “out of tune”, things really go off the rails from 4:28-4:36. I don’t know who was out of tune, but it was horrible. There are other niggling things about Marzipan’s “Mars”, but I’d spend way too much time mentioning them. (Plus, I’d come across as even more pedantic than I do already.)

Now for “Venus”. It’s OK. But it sounds as if the orchestra’s heart isn’t really in what they’re doing. The strings sound like they couldn’t be bothered (they’re annoyingly out of tune here and there – just enough for me to go “Grrr”).

And “Mercury” is… well, it’s probably the unfleetest “Mercury” I’ve ever heard. This particular Winged Messenger must be carrying a very heavy message. Or maybe it doesn’t want to deliver the message at all. The string section’s entry at 1:40 is out of tune. Grrr. And again at 1:44. Extra grrr. (The out-of-tune-ness of Maazel’s orchestra is starting to bother me in a big way).

Well, I can be a bit more positive about “Jupiter”. That’s played semi-energetically (and with a variety of out-of-tune instruments at 0:43, 0:49-0:56, and in a heap of other places). Maazo’s “Jupiter” is OK (apart from the frequent intonation problems.)

“Saturn” is better.

“Uranus” is not as good as “Saturn”, but better than “Jupiter”. If I wanted to use one word to describe Ma-ha-ha-zel’s “Uranus” (and I do), it’d be “flabby”.

“Neptune” is probably the best movement of all the movements on display in this here recording.

All up, this Planets recording is a non-contender. It isn’t the worst one I’ve heard (Hello, Bernard Herrmann and the London Philharmonic Orchestra), but it’s bad enough.

Having typed all of the preceding words, I must admit that, overall, Maazel’s Planets was nowhere near as bad I thought it was going to be, but nowhere near as good as I wanted it to be.

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9 thoughts on “76. Lorin Maazel, Orchestre National de France, 1981

  1. Zardoz May 11, 2015 / 3:57 am

    Wow! Impressive work there, Peter!

    A correction though – the Maazel Planets listed at #71 on your list cannot have been recorded in ’84 – that was the copy I had as a kid (on LP), and I had it in junior high, which would have been ’82 at the latest. The Bolero that it’s paired with on that CD was the ’84 recording.

    Per this page, The Planets was recorded in ’81:

    http://www.discogs.com/Holst-Ravel-Orchestre-National-De-France-Lorin-Maazel-The-Planets-Bol%C3%A9ro/release/2543575

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    • Peter May 11, 2015 / 8:53 am

      Howdy, Zardoz.

      Thanks for letting me know the right date. I’ve modified the post accordingly (and corrected a typo I found as well):

      https://petersplanets.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/maazel-1981/

      And thanks for the compliment. (Aw, shucks.)

      As for you having the Maazel recording on LP in your formative years, I don’t quite know what to say about that. A part of me thinks: “Oh no, if that was your first Planets recording then it would’ve been the one that imprinted on you, and you’ll think all Planets recordings should go like that”. But then another part of me relaxes, and thinks: “At least you’ll hopefully get to hear other Planets recordings.”

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      • Zardoz August 20, 2016 / 12:23 pm

        I forgot to reply to this last year!

        This was an early digital recording, which was its claim to fame when CBS Masterworks released it in 1981. This was the original cover, a false-color image of Saturn taken by one of the Pioneer probes:

        I didn’t really imprint on it too much, because I had heard other versions of most of the movements elsewhere. Even at the time I found the orchestra kind of, I dunno, drunken? To tell the truth I think the out-of-tune sloppiness almost works for “Mars”, emphasizing the chaos and discord of the thing, and the cavernous acoustics of the hall actually enhances “Neptune” and certainly makes for a good demo of early digital recording. I don’t think an analog recording (at least of the time) could have remotely captured the deep reverb of a hall like that as well. I’m assuming they mic’d it from a good distance away from the orchestra, or else used a separate mic to capture the sound of the hall. Unfortunately, I don’t think playing most of this work in that space does it many favors, and the perfectly-captured, slurred acoustics of a hall like that coupled with the slurred playing makes for a very woozy Planets indeed.

        It was recorded at the Maison de la Radio in Paris in 1981. They used 3M’s 32-track digital recorder, the first all-digital multitrack recorder, although I don’t know if they used all the tracks or just recorded straight to the two-track mastering deck. This was the same deck many early all-digital recordings were made on, including the debut album from Christopher Cross and Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly. It was an unwieldy beast to work with, but I’ve always thought it sounded much better than most of its successors over the next decade or so, probably because its analog components were supposedly spare-no-expense, second-to-none.

        One thing I noticed about this record even as a kid – the dynamic range was *insane*. Neptune’s fade out is prolonged and whisper quiet, while the loudest bit of Uranus (no fart jokes, please!) was borderline speaker-blowing. I recorded this to metal tape (hmmm, wonder if I still have that tucked away somewhere?) with Dolby C, and found it almost impossible to set the levels so that Neptune’s fade out remained audible ’till almost the end without having that loud bit of Uranus overload.

        I should actually look for a cheap used copy of this on CD next time I visit Amoeba because I’m curious what it would sound like on my current system…

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      • Peter August 20, 2016 / 2:10 pm

        Howdy, Zardoz.

        Thanks for the information, Big Z. It was elucidating. I love reading about the ins ‘n’ outs of recordings. I find all that stuff fascinating.

        As for the recording’s dynamic range, I think that for a listener sitting at home in his or her hi-fi den, it’s a tad unhelpful. It’s the kind of recording that can have you racing off to adjust the volume control every 37 seconds. That’s not my kind of listening experience.

        Incidentally, you can buy a cheap used copy of the CD on eBay – they have plenty. Happy buying!

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  2. wonderboy September 20, 2016 / 5:40 pm

    also one of my first recordings, i think its not as bad as you mean.

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    • Peter September 21, 2016 / 9:52 am

      Well, all I can say is my ears were not pleased.

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  3. Gerald Martin October 14, 2016 / 4:17 am

    I still remember the last line in the High Fidelity magazine review:

    “The orchestra play like pigs.”

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  4. Geoff Arnold February 19, 2017 / 3:35 am

    Hi Peter,
    W/pedia says that this is a children’s chorus in Neptune (I haven’t heard the disc). Perhaps that’s where Andy Davis got the idea.
    Cheers,
    Geoff

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    • Peter February 19, 2017 / 11:21 am

      Yowser, Geoff

      “Hi Peter,
      W/pedia says that this is a children’s chorus in Neptune (I haven’t heard the disc). Perhaps that’s where Andy Davis got the idea.
      Cheers,
      Geoff”

      Maybe.

      I just had another listen to Maazel’s “Neptune”. It doesn’t sound especially like a bunch of kiddies singing to me. It actually sounds like a woman’s chorus.

      That made me wonder where Wikipedia got its information, so I went to the CD booklet. For some reason, no chorus is mentioned. Grrr.

      So I went off to Discogs, the website that lists pretty much every recording ever released. The entry for the 1981 German LP pressing of Maazel’s Planets does mention a chorus. It’s the “La Maîtrise De Radio France“. Discogs says they’re a children’s chorus.

      So there you go. There are actually two recordings* of The Planets with choruses made up of junior campers. Who knew?

      (*The other is Andrew Davis with The Toronto Symphony – and the Toronto Children’s Chorus.)

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