HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32. Beni Mora, Op. 29 No. 1. Japanese Suite, Op. 33.
Ladies of the Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic Orch/Sir Andrew Davis, cond.

HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32
Women of the Houston Symphony Chorus; Houston Symphony Orch/Hans Graf, cond.
Houston Symphony Release, DVD and Blu Ray

EBEN: Organ Concerto No. 1 "Symphonie Gregoriana."
Gunther Rost, organ; Bamberg Symphony Orch/Gabriel Feltz, cond.
OEHMS SACD OC 643 TTL: 56:35

Here's another winner from Chandos, a generous coupling of three of Holst's most colorful scores. The Planets is given a sturdy performance, beautifully played by the BBC Philharmonic, an orchestra that doubtless knows this music better than any other. Filling out the disc we have two early works of Holst, the Oriental-sounding three dances of Beni Mora, composed in 1910-1911, and the six dances of the Japanese Suite written four years later for Japanese dancer Michio Ito who whistled the tunes for Holst to set to music—although none of these sound particularly Japanese. Chandos' engineers have done a splendid job sonically with crystalline clarity for percussion, with the shimmering textures of high percussion beautifully captured, as well as the thundering timpani and bass drum. There also is an appropriate spatial effect for the wordless womens' chorus in the final movement of Planets.

In 2010 Austrian conductor Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra since 2001, came up with the idea of a multi-media presentation of Gustav Holst's The Planets, and it proved to be a resounding success. Called "An HD Odyssey," the concert was first given in Houston to great acclaim, and later taken to Carnegie Hall, where again it triumphed. The excellent performance of The Planets, recorded in surround sound, is accompanied by vivid often stunning videos and images of the solar system, mostly photographs taken from NASA projects. For the concerts, the orchestra performed on a dimmed stage with a huge screen for the videos. Apparently audiences respond favorably to this multi-media approach, which was the work of filmmaker Duncan Copp. Little effort seems to have been made to try to link images to the music except in a most general way. The first disk contains the performance accompanied by the movie. Disk 2 offers a look behind the scenes, interviews with conductor Graf and comments by many prominent aerospace scientists. Audio quality is excellent throughout. As recorded here, the Houston Symphony produces a beautifully transparent sound that might have benefited from more resonance. The two-disk set is released on regular DVD as well as Blu Ray. This is an admirable project, and recommended. As of now, it is available directly from the HOUSTON SYMPHONY

Czech composer Petr Eben (1929-2007), considered to be a leading composer of his country, also was known as a teacher. His works include liturgical music, masses, oratorios, cantatas, and choruses, as well as orchestral and chamber music. He wrote the first of his two organ concertos in 1954 when he was only 24 year old student. He considered it to be a "symphonia Gregoriana," based on the Gregorian choral. It is a large-scale work scored for large orchestra that includes four horns, two trumpets, timpani, two harps and a wide range of percussion. One might expect massed organ/orchestral sonorities, but such effects aren't heard often. Eben's music shows no particular style and surely could not be called "modern." This is a long work (56:35) with a rambling first movement (26:49).that seems endless. This music outstays its welcome very quickly, although it is intriguing as a curiosity. We may be sure that Gunther Rost and the fine Bamberg Symphony do what can be down for this music, and the engineering is excellent. Don't expect the fireworks of Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony or Poulenc's G-minor concerto—you won't find them here.

R.E.B. (May 2011)