This is a forceful reading of The Planets. It took me a while to get used the zippiness of Billy Steinberg’s “Mars”. For ages I thought, “This is way too fast!”, but nowadays I think, “Playing ‘Mars’ that fast is as valid an interpretation as anyone else’s – I suppose.” It’s still faster than I prefer, but I like its insistence (by accentuating the first beat of every bar: ONE-two-three-four-five-ONE-two-three-four-five). However, there’s a fair bit of brass section ungreatness that’s a bit disconcerting – especially after hearing so many people rave about this recording. The solo tenor tuba is a bit sloppy at 2:02, as are the trumpets directly after it at 2:06. A trumpeter fluffs a note pretty badly at 4:28 (it’s not very loud, but you can hear it in the right channel). And a trumpeter plays a slightly flat note at 4:33-4:34 which is a little jarring. Despite all of that, I’m pleased to say the brass section plays mighty well much more often than it plays not mighty well. Hmm, that’s odd: at 5:23 in “Mars”, the trumpeter plays a little phrase I’ve never heard before. Is it in the score? Hang on… Nope, it’s not in the score. Well, waddaya know? Anyway, I thought the ending of “Mars” was a slight let-down. The stuttering by the orchestra wasn’t all that forceful.
“Venus” is splendid.
“Mercury” is fine. Maybe not as light as a feather, but still enjoyable. A flute plays a sharp note at 2:21 and then a weird note at 2:44, but they’re not worth mentioning (and those words were certainly not worth reading). Unfortunately, from 1:28-1:47 the string section kept playing a bit flat. That was annoying. And at 1:47: Wow, that’s a loud horn.
“Jupiter” is OK. It’s not what I’d call the last word in jollity, but it’s fine. 0:33: a dud note from a violin in the left channel. And from 1:39-1:46 the solo trumpet is a little insecure. And from 2:13-2:16 the trumpeter loses the pulse of the music, resulting in very sloppy playing. If you want to know what a well-recorded brass section sounds like when it’s not in tune, have a listen from 2:38-2:42. That sounds unpleasant to me. And whatever happened at 4:40 with the trumpet was distinctly odd. It sounds like the trumpeter realised his or her mistake and stopped as soon as possible to not make it any worse. Towards the end of The Grand Tune, the beleaguered trumpeter (i.e., beleaguered by his or her trumpet) plays a painfully bad note at 4:55. And then the aforementioned “Please can I leave the recording session early” trumpeter plays a dreadfully fluffed note at 7:04. But enough of the flaws. I feel for the trumpeter. It can’t be good for any orchestral musician to know that on an engineered-for-supreme-clarity recording everything’s going to be heard clearly, and that any little mistake you make is going to be picked up by someone who notices mistakes in classical music recordings. By the way, and I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but as The Grand Tune progresses it sounds to me as if the orchestra becomes more and more reluctant to play it. I’m probably imagining it. Maybe. The Grand Tune in full is 3:13-5:01, and as the music builds so does what I sense to be an unease in the orchestra. I can’t pinpoint it, but there are signs such as the strings playing their phrases haltingly (they hesitate at 3:51 and 4:06) and the trumpets playing with a weird, nervous vibrato (at 4:39-4:40). I don’t think it’s interpretative phrasing – I actually think the orchestra is uneasy with the music. There are more mistakes, and there’s more insecurity in the playing, as the movement goes on, but I need to stop typing about it. Summing up “Jupiter” (I have to, otherwise this review will never finish), I’m compelled to say it contains an unhealthy amount of shoddy playing from the brass section, and the orchestra doesn’t sound terribly comfortable. Why don’t people mention that when they gush over these Planets?
I found “Saturn” much more agreeable. It’s better played than “Jupiter” – which was a relief, coming after all those dud notes. But this “Saturn” also has mistakes/insecurity. Grrr.
“Uranus” is alright. For me, the best thing about Steinberg’s “Uranus” is the enthusiastic percussionist who hits his or her crash cymbal too early at 3:55. I like that enthusiasm.
“Neptune” is fine and dandy. Well, maybe not dandy. That’s not the word. But it is fine. Unfortunately, there’s a weird edit at 1:35/1:36 in the left channel. And I didn’t like the women’s choir. To me, they sounded more shrill than mysterious. But that’s in keeping with Steinberg’s clear-eyed approach to The Planets.
Overall, Steinberg’s Planets is OK if you like an unsentimental and not-very-poetic view of the work, and don’t mind the occasional mistake or two. It doesn’t appeal to me all that much, but depending on your tastes in musical depictions of planets you might like it more than I did.