65. David Robertson, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 2014

Holst - The Planets (Robertson, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 2014)

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I. “Mars, the Bringer of War”

This is weird. “Mars” starts off slow (no big deal), maintains its slowness (really, no big deal), but the timpanists are trying to add dynamics to their steady thudding. They start at a decently low volume (as prescribed in the score), but keep getting quieter, then they get a bit louder, then get quieter again. And that’s not in the score. It’s weird. Our Man Holst never said anything about messing with the dynamics of the timpani. It’s all meant to be steady and menacing, not bouncy and dynamic. I’m trying to listen to this opening part of “Mars”, but what those timpani are doing is mighty distracting. It’s doing me head in. I want to say to the percussion section, “It’s all meant to be one volume!” And am I imagining it, or is this getting slower? I’m at the 1:16 mark, and it feels like the whole thing is actually going to stop. It’s. So. Slow. Now I’m at 1:30, and the next section has begun. It’s not getting any faster, folks. Boy oh boy. I think the word to describe all of this is “turgid”. 1:48: Trmpet mistake. Here comes the first orchestral heave… 2:11: That was OK. But it’s still way too slow for my liking. 2:15: The second orchestral heave. Was that slower than the first one? Egad. 2:21: The third one. Wow, this orchestra and conductor are in no hurry at all. 2:26-2:31 the last heave before the next section, and it’s threatening to come to a complete standstill. 2:36-2:42: The solo trombone here is having trouble with his or her phrasing, and I reckon it’s totally a result of the orchestra’s (lack of) speed. How can you maintain the pulse when everyone around you is moving in slow motion?

“Mars” Interlude: I sincerely hope that the rest of the movements in this recording of The Planets are nowhere near as interpretatively iffy as “Mars”. If they are, then I might end up spending hours talking about a piece of music that only goes about 50 minutes. If I do spend way too long talking about it, there’s the ghastly likelihood that you’ll have hours of reading ahead of you. I don’t want that. It’s bad enough that you read what I type, but to read a lot of it… well, that’s just plain cruel.

OK. Back to “Mars”…

2:43-2:48: The trombonist’s second solo, and it’s just as dodgy as the first.

3:40: The first orchestral splat, and it’s not too bad.

3:47-5:12: The bit after the orchestral splat, and there’s no tension in it whatsoever.

5:12 onwards: Hooray! Everyone’s picked up some speed, and it’s rattling along quite nicely. Now we’re talking.

It’s as if there are two different orchestras in this movement, with the second one much better than the first. I tell ya, this is weird.

7:25-7:33: The build-up to the orchestral death throes is nicely articulated from everyone in the orchestra.

7:33: The death throes are relatively sedate (they actually feel like they go on longer than they’re meant to), but they’re a whole lot better than the general torpor I was hearing in the first two-thirds of this “Mars”.

Now on to “Venus”. Please let it be unremarkable, please let it be unremarkable…

II. “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”

Phew. Nothing horrible here. This “Venus” is a little slower than usual, but at least slow is good in “Venus”. I hope the solo instruments play OK. Oops. I spoke typed too soon. There’s a sharp note from the solo violin at 2:03. Never mind. Everything else is fine. I actually didn’t mind this “Venus”. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful.

II. “Mercury, the Winged Messenger”

This “Mercury” starts off fairly light on its feet, which is how I like it, but some of the phrasing is a little slow and ponderous. (There’s that word “slow” again.)

As it goes along, it maintains its sluggish tempo. I really don’t want to keep using the word “slow” over and over, but… What is it with the lack of speed in these Planets?

3:53-3:59: Ew, that’s some insecure (and not-quite-in-tune) playing from the solo violin. But the rest of the violins come along at 3:59-4:03 to help out by all playing in tune. Thanks, violins.

There’s not much else I can about this “Mercury”. It’s all fairly neat and tidy, but unremarkable (even though I did make some remarks.)

IV. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”

This is fine. It’s a bit slow (sigh), but played well.

1:05-1:29: The first jolly tune is jolly. It’s played at a nice tempo, and with a nice degree of jauntiness. It had me tapping my toes. As did the bit after it (1:29-1:47).

1:47-2:49: The second, broader jolly tune is fine as well. I’m liking this “Jupiter”. Hang on a minute, this broader jolly tune is getting slower. I hope it doesn’t…

1:52-1:59: Noooooooooooooooooooo! Now it’s way too slow. And there I was, enjoying it. Now it’s dragging along. Grrr. It picks up the pace before going into the next section, but overall I’m slightly crestfallen that the orchestra found itself again in the slow lane. Wah!

And now for The Big Tune…

3:20-5:36: This is stately and noble. This is where being slow doesn’t hurt the music at all. Unfortunately, things get a bit slacker the more The Big Tune progresses, but it’s not fatal. It’s just sounds a little less, er, “big”.

5:36-6:46: The bit after The Big Tune is OK. It’s not the going to set The Planets world on fire or anything, but it’s solid enough.

6:46 onwards: This is the repeat of the first jolly tune is OK. It’s slow on places, not-so-slow in others I can live with it.

This was an OK “Jupiter”.

By the way: On the track listing in Spotify this movement is called “Jupiter, the Bringer of Joy”. No, that would be a song by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band:

V. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” (I’m a little surprised the track-listing people didn’t rename this to “Saturn, the Bringer of Oldity”)

Here the slowness of everything pays off.

This is a fairly decent interpretation of “Saturn”, and might get my vote for best performance on this album. I know, I haven’t heard the last two movements, let alone the rest of this movement, but I’m feeling it in my bones that Mr. Robertson’s slow approach to The Planets will work best here. Maybe.

2:02: Is that an edit? (It sure sounds like one.)

Moving right along…

I’m now at the climax of the movement (4:18 onwards), and it’s fine. It’s a bit low-powered, but it’s OK.

I want to like this “Saturn” more, but there’s nothing I’m hearing that lifts it up out of the “It’s OK” pile of recorded “Saturn”s. It’s good enough as far as it goes, but there are so many other “Saturn”s I’d much rather listen to.

I will say, however, that the “I guess I have to get used to being old” part after the climax (5:46-6:16) is nice. And the “serene acceptance of everything” part that concludes the movement (from 6:16) is very nice, but it gets slower as it gets closer to the entry of the organ. That last bar before the organ entry (7:54-7:59) is slowed down waaaaaaaaaay too much. It makes the wait for the organ interminable.

7:59 onwards: At least there’s a decent organ here. It’s not terribly loud, but I guess it’s not supposed to be. (I want my organ loud!)

“Saturn” finishes nicely enough, despite the last few bars (9:20 onwards) being horrendously slow.

VI. “Uranus, the Magician”

OK. After the low wattage (or low kilojoules, if you’re Australian) of “Saturn”, the start of “Uranus” is much more promising. It actually has a bit of energy. This is shaping up to be the best-played movement of this recording.

I’m now at the two-minute mark, and it’s powering along quite well. Yep. I’m enjoying this performance.

Update: “Uranus” finished. I enjoyed it.

VII. “Neptune, the Mystic”

This is more like it. Everything about this orchestra and conductor’s approach to The Planets pays off here. It’s not the most mysterious “Neptune” you’ll ever hear, but the lack of hurrying is an advantage in this movement.

***

If I gave these Planets one word* to describe them, I’d use the word “disappointing”. I was hoping it was going to be a world-beater (i.e., “Who knew a recording from Sydney, Australia, would become the best Planets ever!”), but what I heard was an underpowered interpretation.

(*I could have done that at the beginning of the review and saved you a lot of reading.)

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