2. Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1979

Holst - The Planets (Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1979)

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This was the second-hardest-to-find Planets for me. (The one by Hilary Davan Wetton is the most elusive – and I still can’t find it anywhere. I finally found it.)

But enough of Planets-related difficulties. To the music!

This “Mars” is good. And when I say “good”, I mean gooood. It’s menacing, brutal, and relentless. Oh baby. When the orchestra goes into the section where the strings are chugging (2:04-2:21), the strings chug magnificently. This chug-chug-chug-chug section showcases a solo tenor tuba, and it’s impressively loud. One thing young Seiji does here that I think is excellent is this: he gets the solo tenor tuba to play loudly (thank you), and each solo bit by the tuba is immediately followed by a short phrase from three trumpets that Seiji gets to play much quieter. It sounds like a call-and-response. I absolutely love that. As far as I can remember (which, with my memory, isn’t very far), no-one else has done that in a recording of Them Planets. Love it.

Oh man. I’m still listening to “Mars”, but now I’m at the woozy bit (3:04-3:58), where the storm-clouds are brewing. This is stupendously good.

If Seiji keeps this up, it might end up being my favourite “Mars”. Oh man.

Sidenote: I can’t figure something out. Why is something this good out-of-print? What’s going on, record companies?

Back to “Mars”.

Now I’m at the last orchestral bang before the death throes (5:45), and it’s excellent. And the build-up to those death throes (6:07-6:14) – Wow. The death throes themselves aren’t as incredible as what just preceded them (the orchestral sputters aren’t as vicious as they can be when directed by a mischievously malicious conductor), but they’re still mighty darn-tootin’.

Hoo-ey that was a good “Mars”. And I want to put that on repeat. I could listen to that all day.

(Note to self: No you don’t, Peter. You have the rest of the album to listen to.)

“Venus” is wonderful. The playing that Say-You-Say-Me-Say-iji coaxes from these Bostonians is gorgeous. I am so glad I found this CD. (Thank you, eBay.)

One thing I’ve only just noticed about this “Venus” is that everyone is in tune. Hooray! (You wouldn’t believe how many out-of-tune “Venus”es I’ve heard.)

Because it’s all in tune, and the playing is glorious, and the sound quality is ideal, while I’m listening to this I feel like I’m floating.

What a dilemma. I’m only five minutes into “Venus”, and I want to put this on repeat too. And that last 30 seconds… it’s sublime. Orchestral playing doesn’t get better than this.

“Mercury” starts off wonderfully. The orchestral interplay, with the music darting about the various instruments as they pass their phrases on to the person next to them, is fabulous. It’s not the zippiest “Mercury” you’ll ever hear, but there are little things in it that make it stand out. For example, the strings in the background from 2:07-2:11. Oh my. And the bass clarinet from 2:37-2:38. I never hear that in other recordings. (At least, I don’t think I do. Other Planets recordings are starting to fade from the memory as this one takes hold in my consciousness and occupies a prime place.) And the awkward B note played by the double-basses from 3:37-3:47 fits here beautifully. I don’t know how Seiji did it, but he made it fit. In other recordings, that B note is either played very quietly in the hope that no-one notices it, or it’s played at a regular volume and sticks out uncomfortably. Not here. It actually makes sense here.

Now that “Mercury” has finished, I may have been a bit hasty saying it wasn’t terribly zippy. I reckon it has all the zip you’d want. It’s just a fraction slower than it’s usually played. Ignore me. It’s zippy.

“Jupiter” is superb. I love the bit where the orchestra stops at 0:21. (Yep, it’s the little things.) And when the orchestra starts up again (0:22), and the dynamics swell at 0:24 before playing the next bit: Yum. There are so many magnificent little things happening in the first minute that I can’t list them all. The first instance of The Jolly Tune (1:04-1:15) is played superbly. (The tuba playing the bass line sits perfectly in the mix.) I will mention one little thing here: I love how the violins play their melody and it’s taken over by the violas and cellos (1:13-1:15). That’s another thing I don’t hear in other recordings. The Big Tune (3:09-5:06) is… What’s a superlative I haven’t used yet? Well, whatever superlative I haven’t used yet, that’s it. It’s not played sentimentally (i.e., molto molto espressivo – or, putting it another way, mushily). It’s played with a lightness of touch that I like very much. Seiji doesn’t try and milk it for all it’s worth. The repeat of The Jolly Tune (6:13-6:35) is marvellous all over again. And the last appearance of The Jolly Tune (6:52-7:29) coupled with the tubas playing that variation of The Big Tune (7:29-7:46) is a joy to listen to.

That was wonderful.

“Saturn” is amazing. It’s slow and effortful, which is exactly how I think it should sound. The long, slow build-up (3:07-4:46) is incredible. And when it reaches the climax, I can hear the despair. In the section at the plateau of the piece followed by the release (4:49-5:56), I was transfixed. The final part of “Saturn” (the “acceptance of mortality” part) (5:56-8:02) is indescribably peaceful. This is another movement I wanted to play repeatedly.

I thought “Uranus” was going to be a huge let-down after “Saturn”, but it’s not at all. For a start, I can hear the low note of the trombones at 0:45-0:47 with unprecedented clarity. Actually, I can hear everything exceptionally well. And I refuse to believe someone played a wrong note in the background at 1:27. That didn’t happen. No sir. This is an excellent “Uranus”.

As for “Neptune”, it’s fabulous. The flutes that start the movement play with vibrato in such a way that they sound tremulous, as if nervous about peering into infinity. Chills! The women’s chorus is ideal.

Moment of Exclamation: As I was listening to “Neptune” I was half-reading the score (I was paying much more attention to the music). From 5:10-5:19 the women’s chorus got a little louder and then quietened down again with superb control, and I was a little surprised because I was fairly sure I’d ever heard that before. I had a look at the part of the score where they did that, and lo and behold, the women’s choir were doing exactly what Holst asked them to do (i.e., get a little louder and then quieten down again). “Ohhh!”, I exclaimed.

“Neptune” (continued): The orchestral balance and playing in the bit after the women’s choir quietens down (5:19-5:36) is simply perfect. The section after that (5:36-6:38) is just as perfect. And the short section after that (6:38-6:49). It’s so ethereal I thought I was going to float away. (Note to self: You’re blathering now, Peter.)

This “Neptune” was another movement I wanted to play again. Immediately.

This recording of The Planets was stunning. (Well, it stunned me.)

Thanks for your conducting, Seiji, and thanks for your playing, Bostonians. Oh, and a huge thanks to the Philips engineering team for the sterling sound. But no thanks to the record company management for making this close to unobtainable.

This recording will convince you The Planets is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

Oh, and I just want to mention: Although this came in at number two in the list, it’s a very close second. Depending on my mood, I could easily swap this with number one. (It’s that close.)

PS: After writing this review I listened to the CD six times in a row. Yes, six. I couldn’t help myself.

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7 thoughts on “2. Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1979

  1. John R. Lewis III March 6, 2015 / 10:12 pm

    I believe that the reason this went out of print was because Ozawa-bashing became a favorite sport of critics. He couldn’t BUY a good review. This rendition seems to have been picked up by Newton Classics, a Dutch re-issue label (Philips being Dutch as well) that is associated with Naxos. On the strength of your review, I’m definitely getting a copy. Thank you.

    Like

    • Peter March 7, 2015 / 1:32 am

      I don’t quite know why Seiji Ozawa fell out of favour with the critics. I like his conducting a lot (Ozawa’s Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet is my favourite version of that work). There was something about Seiji’s Planets that I responded to in a huge way, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It took me a while, but I think I’ve figured it out: He conducts The Planets as if it was Ravel. This is right up my alley, because Ravel is my favourite 20th-century composer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin Selbrede February 6, 2016 / 11:25 am

    Philips just put out the big box set, “Seiji Ozawa: The Philips Years” which includes this recording, which I just finished listening to. So you CAN acquire it, but not cheaply — but you get 49 other CDs of Ozawa’s 40-year career with the Planets to ease the pain.

    Like

    • Peter February 6, 2016 / 12:11 pm

      Howdy, Martin. A 50-CD set of Seiji’s podium efforts? Jeepers. That’s a fairly gruesome way of buying his Planets. I’d suggest potential listeners scoot on over to eBay and buy this copy for $23.99 instead.

      But if anyone* wants to spend $150-ish on Seiji’s set, I won’t stop them.

      (*I wouldn’t mind it myself, as I’m a fan of Seiji’s conducting. But the price… Golly, that’s a lot of money.)

      Like

  3. wonderboy September 20, 2016 / 4:56 pm

    this is for me the higher middleclass. i don’t like the sound very much (its as Philips) but the performance is very good .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mikaal February 21, 2017 / 6:31 pm

    Peter

    While waiting for my cd of this to arrive, I would like to know if the organ in Saturn @ 8.01 on this is as “big” as Charles Dutoit’s [organ]?
    🎹🎹🎹
    Mikaal

    Like

    • Peter February 21, 2017 / 8:05 pm

      Howdy, Mikaal

      “While waiting for my cd of this to arrive, I would like to know if the organ in Saturn @ 8.01 on this is as “big” as Charles Dutoit’s [organ]?
      🎹🎹🎹
      Mikaal”

      No.

      It’s there (beginning at 7:00), but it’s gentle.

      Have a listen for yourself.

      Like

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