67. John Williams, Boston Pops Orchestra, 1986

Holst - The Planets (Williams, Boston Pops O, 1986)

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I’m beginning to think that pretty much everybody has recorded The Planets. This is the 47th recording of The Planets I’ve heard, and it doesn’t look like I’m going to run out of ’em any time soon. I was mildly surprised to see John Williams (he of film composer fame) and the Boston Pops tackling this beast. I thought they only dealt with, you know, the “pops” end of the orchestral spectrum. (It’s right there in the orchestra’s name.) But if there’s a recording of The Planets, no matter who it’s by, I’m up for it. Now that this pointless preamble is out of the way, let’s listen to the little beastie…

This is a “Mars” that doesn’t dig deep. It skates along, staying on the surface. It’s one of the jolliest versions of “Mars” I’ve heard. Unfortunately, it’s not very war-like – it’s more a funfair ride. It’s sort of like the difference between war and a war re-enactment, where one’s devastating and the other’s harmless. This “Mars” feels more like the war re-enactment. A trumpet has a bit of trouble playing a high note at 2:20, but it’s not a calamity. The orchestral kablammo at 2:52 is very well done. After that orchestral kapow things get a bit more serious, but it’s still not digging very deep.

“Venus” is exceedingly pleasant, but still not terribly deep.

“Mercury” is enjoyable enough, but it’s still superficial.

“Jupiter” is remarkably easy to listen to (there’s nothing to startle the horses here.) I don’t know exactly what it is about this performance of The Planets that stays resolutely on the surface, and it’s bugging me that I don’t know why. It could be the relatively brisk tempos for each movement. But as I’m listening, the thing I’m now noticing is that there’s not much tempo variation within each movement. (That might be it.) The bits of the music with fast tempos are played at the same fast tempo all the way through, and the slower bits are played at the same slow tempo. Is that the secret to profundity in The Planets: vary your tempos wildly? Who knows? (Hint: Not me.) Anyway, back to these planets. “Jupiter” is still playing, and I’m still enjoying it. It’s the best performance on this recording so far. There’s a fair degree of tempo variation, which is helping. (That’s it!)

“Saturn”, on the other hand, is splendid from the get-go. It starts off in a wonderfully spectral way. It’s fabulously eerie. If anybody asked, “What’s so special about ‘Saturn’?”, I’d play them this in a flash.

“Uranus” isn’t bad, but it’s nowhere near as magnificent as “Saturn”.

The brass section has some difficulty coping with what they’re trying to play (3:44-3:49), but it’s fine – apart from how the organ stops playing at 5:18 (it’s disconcertingly abrupt).

“Neptune” is OK, if a little forgettable. (When it finished I forgot if I liked it or not.)

Now that I’ve heard all of Mr. Williams’s Planets I can semi-confidently say that, besides a standout “Saturn”, it’s a fairly middle-of-the-road affair.

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