The Planets, Op. 32. Lyric Movement for Viola and Small
Orchestra (with Timothy Pooley, viola). Neptune (with
original ending). MATTHEWS: Pluto -"The Renewer"
The Hallé Orch/Ladies of the Hallé Choir/Mark Elder, cond.
HYPERION CDA 67270 (F) (DDD) TT: 75:00
What this CD offers as admission to a planetarium chock-full of recorded performances going back to the composer's own pre-electric in 1923, is an eighth planet - Pluto - which Holst didn't compose. The solar system he set to music of remarkable staying power in 1914-16, despite some banal modulations in Venus and Jupiter, were only seven (not counting the Sun or Earth). Holst lived until 1934, long enough to learn of Pluto's discovery in 1930, but by then had come to resent the work's popularity at the expense of his other music. Beyond that, he had been a student of Astrology at the time he conceived his seven-movement original, but dropped the subject soon after, as he did a lot of other arcana in his lifetime. From reports that survive he was a good amateur Astrologer (having been one myself, I capitalize the noun as professionals have been doing for at least 130 years). Perhaps Holst learned, as I did, that most people want their horoscopes cast (no simple task before computers, with the proviso that computers have been accurately programmed), but ask only about money, love and longevity. In any case few listen seriously or carefully unless they've paid for a reading.
So, how come Pluto, which Colin Matthews (b. 1946) composed on a Y2K commission from the Hallé Orchestra before Kent Nagano turned the baton over to Mark Elder? I haven't the slightest idea, nor does Matthews' name register on my radar screen. Hyperion's superbly comprehensive annotation says that he assisted the late Deryck Cooke in the "performing version" of Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony (which version, the first or second?). But in that case, a good deal of material already existed: one movement in full score, portions of the rest in short score - more material than other Brits had available to make an "Elgar Third Symphony," or a "Schubert Tenth," or a "Beethoven Tenth." I had and have tremendous respect for Cooke's efforts on behalf of Mahler, but have come to despise those since who fabricated putative masterpieces that aren't even good forgeries.
Matthews has written a scherzo lasting 6:22 which he calls Pluto - The Renewer. Not only isn't it in the style of Holst, it quickly becomes incoherent noise, graffiti on a subway car. He "unites" it to The Planets with a segue that omits Neptune's wordless postlude for small women's choir offstage. There are snippets (orts, actually, for you crossword fans) of Holst, and mock obeisance in the use of metal percussion. But Pluto is a presumption, the blame for which Nagano and his Mancusian employers must share with Matthews and, now, Hyperion. No one is served by this stunt, which is not only stylistically alien but formally incoherent in and of itself. The crowning irony is that astronomy (no, I don't capitalize that, any more than I capitalize ostriches) has since downgraded Pluto from a planet to an asteroid. Smart Astrologers have rolled their eyes, but not those who neglected to study Pluto's elliptical orbit and its effect on history. But don't let me get started on that.
Otherwise, the Manchester's Hallé has rejoined the ranks of Albion's leading orchestras - the London Symphony, Philharmonic, Royal Phil and BBC, plus the Birmingham that Simon Rattle has left to succeed Abbado in Berlin, now with a 10-year contract in his pocket. Elder promises to maintain the standard Nagano rebuilt, although his Planets don't efface the memory of others. I find his tempos in Jupiter progressively slow (no, the Big Tune should not try to be Pomp and Circumstance No. 6), while Uranus misses an eccentricity that ought to verge on craziness at moments. Elder, though, really does chill the marrow with his slow, quiet, arthritic Saturn - you find yourself waiting for the lifeline to go flat on the monitor (I wonder, is Elder a Capricorn?). Neptune turns out to be almost lush, which is OK both musically and Astrologically. But one must wait 18 minutes for it, or program the disc to skip cues 8 (Matthew's Pluto) and 9 (an early, bland Holst piece called Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra). And doing that is bloody damn nuisance.
Recording? Full-blown if you don't mind a muted organ glissando at the end of Uranus. But it's not quite the sound found on Hyperion's opulent Bantock discs by the Royal Phil under Vernon Handley. Speaking of Handley, he has a commendable Planets on the RPO's own budget label, blazingly recorded, with the bonus of a most eloquently voiced St. Paul's Suite. Otherwise, I'd advise ignoring Karajan's two versions, also those by Solti and Bernard Herrmann (both with LPO, both on Decca), and the last of Boult's several (on EMI, by which time he was Saturnian and seriously slowed-down). Webmeister Benson favors Dutoit and Montreal, also on Decca. But for now I'll stay with Handley; it's not as if I listen to The Planets more than once a year, although a vivid performance of Saturn or Uranus can turn me on like Christmas lights.
R.D. (Aug. 2002)