31. Leopold Stokowski, NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1943

Holst - The Planets (Stokowski, NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1943)

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As far as I’m aware, this is the first American recording of The Planets, although I don’t really know why I mentioned it being American. I don’t think the country of origin has anything to do with anything. Music’s a universal language, isn’t it?

(Note to Self: What a pointless opening paragraph. Why don’t you take more effort at editing your posts, Peter?)

Enough pontificating, on with the show Planets

As somebody mentioned on Amazon.com, the sound quality’s on a par with an AM radio broadcast of the time (I think it’s a little better than that – for mono, and old, it’s entirely listenable).

Setting aside the sound quality, I would like to be the first person in this post (Note to Self: You’re the only person, you idiot) to say this is a tremendous performance of “Mars”. Leo the S whips up great excitement, and I can hear it coming through loud and clear. The rapid-fire playing by the various instruments from 2:07-2:10 is astonishing. Although there’s very little bass in the audio spectrum, I can hear the timpani enthusiastically whacking away from 2:10-2:13, even though the timpanist came in late. It’s great. (Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!) And the enthusiasm is still there shortly after (2:17-2:19). Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

I’m now starting to not care one bit about the extremely limited sound quality. This is a great “Mars”.

The ominous bit in the middle of “Mars”, when things get quiet and menacing (2:55-4:10), is magnificent. It broods. And then it’s back to the march, swift and merciless (4:10 onwards). This is fabulous. And the orchestral blam! at 5:55-6:03 is monumental. (I was going to say it shatters the very fabric of time and space, but that might be going a bit too far.) A violinist playing way up high has trouble hanging to the note at 6:08, but that doesn’t matter. The orchestral death throes at the end of the movement (6:31 onwards) are jaw-dropping. And yes, when I listened to it my jaw did drop. Can I say this is probably the best ending to “Mars” I’ve ever heard?

“Venus” is next, and I hope it lives up to the magnificence of “Mars”.

Phew. It does.

“Venus” is excellent. Although… things get a bit slippery in the intonation department from 2:38-2:53, when the high violins have trouble staying in tune. It’s not all that great, but it’s worse from 3:03-3:07. That’s painful. But all is forgiven from 5:26 onwards. From the moment the solo horn quietly returned with the opening melody, I was in a reverie. There are some audio shenanigans such as a thump (7:20), crackles (7:28-7:32), distortion (7:39-7:41), and more crackles (7:42-8:12), but none of that mattered because I stayed in my reverie. Ah, the power of music…

OK. “Mercury”. This is fast. Fast is good. (There were a few moments where I feared for the players at the speeds they were playing.) This is a frisky, frisky “Mercury”.

“Jupiter” starts off pretty fast too. The first Jolly Tune (0:56-1:16) is light-hearted, but above all, jolly. I’m on board with Loping Leopold’s vision.

Sidenote: Given how leisurely he is with “Venus”, and how lively he is with the brisker movements, I think I’m getting a feel for Leo the Lion’s vision of how he sees these Planets. His interpretation seems to be: “Play the fast bits really fast, and the slow bits really slow.”

The second Jolly Tune (1:32-) starts off at a moderate pace (moderato, I guess), and towards the end of it the orchestra speeds up, resulting in some hair-raising moments as some of the instruments try to keep up. (Leopold Stokowski to Grimacing Orchestral Musicians: “Faster! Faster!”) You can hear the trumpeter flailing away (and failing) from 1:54-1:56. But then the trumpeter plays even faster from 2:02-2:08, but this time he/she holds on. And then the orchestra plays even faster from 2:08 until the end of that section at 2:13, when everyone gets to have a break. I reckon they would have been mighty relieved. (I’m breathing quickly just thinking about it.) In what I might call the “breather” section (they earned it), the timpanist whacks the billy-o out of his or her timpani. (2:21-2:26). That’s some very impressive thumping.

“Jupiter”‘s Big Tune (2:43-4:26) is exactly that: Big. It’s played with about 50 hearts on 50 sleeves. It’s about as close to a working definition of nobilmente as you’re ever likely to hear. Talk about grand. Unfortunately, the recording quality makes all those strings sound more like a swarm of bees than a string section, but the emotion comes through unmistakably. Speaking of “unfortunately”, there’s a mishap with a piccolo when it goes off the rails playing two wrong notes (4:31-4:32), but I didn’t mind. There’s another mishap when someone plays a wrong note at the end of a crescendo at 4:53. (It sounds like a collision.) But none of that stops this from being a tremendously exciting “Jupiter”. The return of The Jolly Tune (5:25) is full of beans, along with the rest of the movement. It’s all played breathlessly.

Oh, and one last thing about this everyone’s-been-drinking-red-cordial “Jupiter”: Because of the combination of a) the notes played, b) what they were played, and especially c) the sound quality, the very last part of “Jupiter” (6:55-7:00) reminded me of the theme tune to the 1960s TV series Star Trek.

Fun Fact: At 7:02, after the music had finished, you can hear a couple of thuds. I’m hoping it was the sound of Maestro Stoko stepping off the podium, indicating to everyone they can have a break. They deserved it.

Now for “Saturn”.

This is an excellent “Saturn”, despite the violins being very slippery (there’s a lot of portamento going on here, with violins sliding their notes all over the place). The slipperiness disappears when the orchestra starts its long, slow build-up (3:04-4:52). It gets deadly serious then. I can hear the anguish in every bar, even with the 1943 recording quality. You can feel it. The section immediately after the build-up, where the music is on a plateau of desperation (4:52-5:16), is incredible. Things calm down after that, and the sliding violins reappear (5:23-5:26, 5:40-5:43). The last part of “Saturn” (i.e., the Calm Acceptance Of Mortality part) (6:05 onwards) is serene, despite the sliding strings again (7:55, strings slide up; 7:58, strings slide down; 8:05, strings slide up; 8:06, strings slide up more; and 8:07 – even more).

Now it’s “Uranus”, and we’re back to fast ‘n’ frisky. Unfortunately, Laughin’ Leo takes a few liberties with the score (putting it another way, he ignores directions). For a start, in the opening “Hello!” from the horns, the third note is longer than it’s supposed to be (it’s supposed to be the same length as the first two). And the opening timpani bit comes in too early (at 0:09). However, it is exciting and rambunctious. Now that I’ve had my grumble about the first 10 seconds (henceforth to be known as the “What are doing that for, Leo?” part of “Uranus”), this “Uranus” is fast. Very fast. Dangerously fast. One of the perils of playing so fast is that some members of the orchestra can have trouble keeping up, and that’s what happens from 0:45-0:47, and then from 0:53-0:54. Instrumentally-speaking, there’s a right old train wreck from 1:05-1:07 (it’s painful). Someone plays a dud note at 1:12, but I guess you could do that at any speed. Still, this is a mighty decent “Uranus”. 1:15: More sliding violins. Jeepers. (Question for Leopold The Stokowski: What’s with all the sliding, Leo?) And speaking of sliding, the brass instruments join in the “Hey, let’s slide notes for no particular reason” escapade at 2:10. It’s bad enough that they do it at all, but one of the horn players does it too early – or maybe it’s the second horn player who does it too late – I’m not sure which. Either way, it’s weird.

All of this slidey, bad-notey playing in “Uranus” makes me think ol’ Leo was aiming for a jokey interpretation of this movement. The musical world already has Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice – we don’t need another one. (Come to think of it, we don’t need another Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Gounod either.)

But back to still on “Uranus”… At 3:38 there’s no organ. There’s meant to be one there. Oops.

Well, “Uranus” has finished, and I’ve just come to the realisation that I probably spent more time talking about it than listening to it. Sorry about that.

And at last we come “Neptune”. There are quite a few extraneous noises in the first 30 seconds of this (e.g., there’s a bit of rustling at 0:12, and someone coughs at 0:14, 0:25, and 0:28), but despite the noises it’s a splendid interpretation. The playing’s a sloppy in places (mainly the woodwinds not starting their phrases together), but it’s still splendid. The women’s chorus is fabulously spooky. But there are those sliding strings again (5:51-6:02). Leo!

Once last thing about “Neptune”: The fabulously spooky women’s chorus gets into a heap of trouble towards the end of the movement. They try valiantly to stay in tune, but don’t quite make it. Ah well.

OK. “Neptune” has finished. And there was applause. Because it was a live recording.

Now to sum up: Even with all the undesirable elements of this particular recording (see above), I liked it enormously. Courtesy of it being Another Leopold Stokowski Production™, it has oodles of personality. And that’s fine by me. I’d much rather that than something bland and anonymous.

You will be relieved to know I’ve finished talking about this recording of The Planets.

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