42. Sir Malcolm Sargent, BBC Symphony Orchestra, 1965

Holst - The Planets (Sargent, BBC Symphony Orchestra, 1965)

This is the second time Sir Malcolm the Sargent recorded The Planets with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The first was in 1958, and it’s a ripper. (It’s awfully good.)

This particular recording is a live one, from Wednesday 3 February 1965 at the Royal Festival Hall.

February? In England? The middle of winter? Oh-oh. I hope that doesn’t mean everyone in the audience has a cold and are going to be coughing their way through the entire Planets.

Okey dokey. Let’s hear it.

1. “Mars, the Bringer of War”

There’s not much bottom end to this recording, but the performance powers along quite nicely. There’s some insecure playing by a trumpet from 1:25-1:30 (it’s in amongst the other trumpets that are playing just fine), and slightly iffy playing here and there from a variety of other brass instruments as the music goes along, but they’re minuscule things to mention because the interpretation is enjoyable. I’m trying to resist the urge to say “For an old live recording, this is good”, but for an old live recording, it is good. There’s a mighty noticeable “Oops” from two trumpets at 2:09 (you can’t miss it), but, mistakes ‘n’ all, I’m thoroughly enjoying this “Mars”. It doesn’t dawdle at all. I loved the first big orchestral “Bang!” (2:52-2:57). There was the buildup, hardly any pause, and then the bang. It all happened so quickly, so efficiently, that it made a refreshing change from what orchestras usually do there: the Portentous Pause. I like how Sir Mal doesn’t mess about. Conversely, Big Mal lets the orchestral bang die away completely before the snaky next bit. (Not all orchestras do.) It sounds nice ‘n’ sinister.

I don’t know why, but I’m getting the impression that this orchestra is gaining confidence as it goes along. At 4:10 the orchestra unleashes its martial rat-a-tat-tat rhythm, and it’s a whole heap of “Wow”. It’s so fast, but completely convincing. I reckon that would have sounded absolutely fantastic in the concert hall that night. There’s a slight trumpet mishap at 4:29, but I’m marvelling at everyone here (including the trumpeter) for keeping up. The series of “whoosh”es from 5:35-5:47 are fabulous. And the “splat” at 5:51 is not too shabby either. Actually, everything after the splat is excellent (i.e., 5:59-6:15). It’s wonderfully ominous, and I love the orchestral balance here. Love it! I must admit that the orchestral death throes (all the “dun-dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun” stuff from 6:22-6:35) weren’t as devastating as I had hoped, but they were enjoyably brisk.

I liked this “Mars”.

It’s the kind of “Mars” that’ll wake you up, especially if all you’ve been listening to are Terribly Terribly Serious And Gloomy Mars performances. This ain’t one of them.

Righty-o. Now for “Venus”…

2. “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”

Lovely. This starts off appropriately heavenly. By the way, when you crank the volume right up, you can hear some entertainingly extraneous noise (such as someone coughing in the left channel at 0:25, and then doing it again at 1:09 – give that man a lozenge!). Those noises aren’t getting in the way of me enjoying the music, though. Unfortunately, the playing in the bit from 0:43-1:21 is pretty slack. The orchestra really isn’t playing as one from 0:56-1:00, mainly because the celesta player in the left channel keeps playing his or her notes earlier than everyone else (or, if you want to put it another way, everyone is dragging behind the celesta player).

Things improve when the orchestra swells (1:45-2:02), complete with introductory cough (at 1:50, from a lady this time), but the swell has some iffy intonation, and that’s not helped by the following solo violin’s even iffier intonation (2:04-2:19). But I’m just being pernickety. Although… I know it’s a live performance and all, but I wouldn’t mind hearing the orchestra play more in tune. The strings after the solo violin have wayward intonation (2:19-2:39), and it’s annoying me. Now, it’s easy to say “But it’s a live performance – you must make allowances!”, but my answer to that is: “Do I?”

Despite the above moaning, I am (mostly) enjoying this “Venus”. Or at least I’m trying to. (That painfully sharp solo violin note at 3:21 is bad news, baby.)

Oh dear. I’ve just realised that I’ve already typed three paragraphs about my response to this “Venus”, and we’re only halfway there. Eep! (Edit yourself, Peter.)

From now on I’ll be brief, and… Ewww, what the solo cello does at 4:39 is horrible. Wow, that’s not good.

The rest of “Venus” goes along much as it had earlier, i.e. nicely interpreted but with intona… Oh man, that solo cello plays two really bad notes (5:36 and 5:43).

Let’s hope “Mercury” is better.

3. “Mercury, the Winged Messenger”

This is a little better. Not a lot, but it’s an improvement. This “Mercury” is suitably frisky, and everyone in the orchestra is playing well. That’s a very lively-sounding timpani from 2:32-2:52. (Is it tuned up higher than usual? Because it sounds like it.)

An enjoyable “Mercury”.

4. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”

The introduction is fun, but then things get weird. Can you explain to me what the orchestra does at 0:18, stopping like that? Maybe somebody thought that moment was too hard to play so they decided not to play it, or somebody thought they were going to make a mistake so they decide not to do anything there. Either way, that orchestral oddity made me go “Huh?” I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, because everything else about this movement is mighty enjoyable. How about we not mention it again, and pretend it never happened?

In the big Jolly Tune (0:56-1:06), the tuba’s having trouble keeping up with the strings. I can picture the tuba player’s face at the end of his or her effort. It’d be the look of relief. The trumpets go a little off the rails at 1:55.

Look, I’m sorry about this. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “What’s the deal here, Peter? You’re meant to be telling me about the music, not just about the mistakes. Tell me about the music!”

OK. I’ll try.

The Big Broad Tune (2:46-4:36) is marvellous. It’s nice and slow and stately, and I like this performance of it a lot. Everything after it is mighty nice too. There are a couple of mistakes at 5:03 and 5:05 (Stop talking about the mistakes, Peter), but they don’t hamper the overall good vibes I’m getting. The tuba from 5:37-5:44 is (Stop it), and (No).

I liked this “Jupiter”.

5. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”

Oh, this is splendid. I don’t want to mention the little instrumental flubs (Here we go again), but at the climax of “Saturn” there’s a noticeable wrong note from a brass instrument at 4:34, and then things go very noticeably awry when someone plays – and maintains – a wrong note from 4:36-4:38. However, after the climax dies away (from 5:44 onwards), the rest of the movement is smooth sailing. It’s lovely (despite the Bronchial Breakout from 6:29-6:31).

And now for the horrid blaring horns that start “Uranus”…

6. “Uranus, the Magician”

There they are. But they’re played well.

This is a jaunty “Uranus”, and I’m enjoying it enormously. There’s not really much to report about this “Uranus”, because it’s relatively mistake-free, nicely-interpreted, well-performed, and any other hyphen-happy phrases you can think of.

7. “Neptune, the Mystic”

Now THIS is how you do “Neptune” live. It has oodles of mystery, and the women’s chorus is ideal (they fade out gloriously). There’s a painfully flat violin note at 1:02/03, but I don’t care. This is a great “Neptune”.

And that was Sir Malcolm Sargent’s 1965 live recording of The Planets. It’s a slight pity that it was recorded in what did sound like the middle of an English Winter (there are coughs a-plenty), but that’s a small price to pay for having a live recording of a piece of music I like (The Planets), interpreted by a conductor I like (Sir Malcolm Sargent). I was glad to make its acquaintance.


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