This is one of the few live recordings of The Planets to be released on CD. Let’s see what’s it like…
Wow, this “Mars” is slow. And ominous. Good. Oh dear. Flat Tuba Alert: At 1:36 there’s a “can’t miss it” wayward tuba note. Do I give that a pass because it’s a live recording? No, I do not. A flat tube note is a flat tuba note. But the relentlessness of this “Mars” is pretty impressive. Oh no. At 1:47 there’s a mistake involving the trumpets that’s even more noticeable than the flat tuba note. I actually groaned when I heard it. But I’m still impressed by the relentlessness of this “Mars”. Eep! Another mistake. This time it’s a horn at 1:58. Oh-oh. Now that we’ve come to the next part of “Mars” (from 2:09 onwards), it’s starting to sound really slack, and it’s falling apart. The poor ensemble work from 3:08-3:10 doesn’t help at all. And when the march starts at 4:45, the orchestra doesn’t even start together (the snare drummer is late). This march part of “Mars” (4:45-6:35) is supposed to be menacing, with a relentless martial rhythm, but it’s just weird. It’s as slow as all get-out, and with the first beat of each bar emphasised for no particular reason I can
see hear. Wow, this is weird. I know conductors sometimes like to stamp their individuality on a recording, but this isn’t “individual” – this is eccentric. In extremis. And then the last part of “Mars”, with the orchestra coming to a stuttering end (7:26-7:59) is played fast, and I mean fast. What on Earth Mars is going on here? According to Wikipedia’s “The Planets Discography” page, this recording was made by putting together a selection of live performances from over three days (27, 28, and 29 June 2001). I find that almost impossible to believe. These were the best performances they could come up with? Really? Maybe it was all an experiment. (“Hey guys: Let’s use the worst takes, put ’em all together, and see if anyone notices.”) “Mars” has finally finished, and I’m in shock. What happened?
Hopefully, “Venus” will be at least moderately manageable. It begins OK, but from 0:32-1:06 the orchestra is pulsing, and it’s odd. That stopped for a while. And now it’s pulsing again (1:49-2:47). This is weirding me out. After the pulsing goes away, “Venus” becomes listenable.
“Mercury” is not bad at all. I actually like it.
“Jupiter” is tolerable, despite Roger messing about with the tempo in almost every bar. The Big Tune (3:11-4:39) is probably the least sentimental one I’ve ever heard. There’s almost no legato at all (“Whatever you do, chaps, don’t hang on to those notes!”), which makes for a listening experience you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. I’m relieved to say that the rest of “Jupiter” goes OK (as in, “Ah, this sounds like the ‘Jupiter’ I recognise”).
“Saturn” is not quite the “Bringer of Old Age” here. Although the first part is OK, the next section (1:26-2:17) is positively jaunty (Norrington to orchestra: “He’s not that old”). To be fair to Roger (Hi, Roger!), I thought that everything from 4:19 until the end was well done. I actually started getting a sense that “Saturn” was, you know, old.
Hooray! A “Uranus” that’s entirely successful. Now I’m hoping against hope that “Neptune” will be fine.
“Neptune” is… fair. It’s faster than I’m used to hearing, but I can deal with that. It sounds as if Roger doesn’t think “Neptune” needs to be mysterious at all. (“These are the notes – let’s play them.”) However, the women’s choir is perfectly placed in the mix (wonderfully distant and ethereal).
Believe it or not, I think I’ve finished talking about Roger’s Planets. I hope so.