Obviously there is more to Gustav Holst than "The Planets," as the above-listed EMI compilations remind us. Assembled from recordings dating back as far as the late '50s, they offer about as complete a CD anthology of the English composer's music as we are likely to get, supplemented by Telarc's disc of the band suites (would that it included "Hammersmith"), the operas "Savitri" and "At the Boar's Head," plus your favorite recording of you-know-what.
"The Planets" nonetheless makes a good doorway to the rest of Holst - i.e., if you are at all susceptible to its pleasures you are likely to find much here that similarly delights. Take Previn's swaggering account of the "Perfect Fool" ballet, its wizard so obviously kin to "Uranus the Magician." Or the "Saturn"-like mysticism of "The Hymn of Jesus" and the "Ode to Death," their solemn processionals interwoven with choral and instrumental writing (e.g., for harp and celesta) that recalls nothing so much as the more otherworldly pages of "Neptune."HOLST: Ballet Music from "The Perfect Fool"; Egdon Heath, Op. 47; Beni Mora, Op. 29, No. 1; St. Paul's Suite, Op. 29, No. 2; Brook Green Suite; Short Festival Te Deum; Psalm 86. Various orchestras conducted by Andre Previn, Malcolm Sargent, Steuart Bedford, Charles Groves, Imogen Holst. EMI CDC7-49784-2 (CD).
HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32; Ballet Music from "The Perfect Fool." Philharmonia Orchestra, William Boughton conducting. Nimbus NI-5117 (CD).
Anyone who shares my view that "Saturn" is the heart of "The Planets," moreover, will probably agree that the "Hymn" and "Ode" are among Holst's masterpieces. I still remember playing the first for my Nigerian roommate in college and having him recognize the opening as coming from his Anglican hymnal. The rest, however, belongs to a realm of Holst's own imagining, whose transcendence is communicated with majesty and exultancy, and a remarkable degree of transparency.
That is more pronounced here than on the pioneering Adrian Boult recording, still my favorite interpretively but no match for the added clarity and impact of Groves', especially on CD. The similarly contrapuntal "Ode," with its Whitmanesque view of death as "lovely and soothing," likewise profits from the digital remastering, as do the Sanskrit-derived "Rig Veda" hymns, among Holst's most distinctive choral compositions.
In short, all this is fairly major Holst, something not true of the appended chamber opera "The Wandering Scholar," its folk-inspired humor undercut by music that gels only sporadically. Nor does the 1924 Choral Symphony, its text drawn from Keats, fully live up to its ambitions. Not that there are not things to enjoy, from the vigorous first-movement Bacchanal (almost Waltonian in its energy) to the suspended beauty of the "Grecian Urn" movement, like the figures themselves almost frozen in time. Best of all is the imaginatively varied Scherzo, its mercurial shifts anticipating Bernard Herrmann (who plainly idolized Holst). But the finale remains unconvincing, even in Boult's splendid performance, its Vaughan Williamsy grandeur reminding us that that composer did this kind of thing better, in both the "Sea Symphony" and the "Five Tudor Portraits."
Against this the later Choral Fantasia seems comparatively austere, like "Hammersmith" a tougher piece to get into if one is expecting more traditional Holst. Yet it is likewise music of substance, if not quite as much as the tone poem "Egdon Heath," its existential bleakness communicated with striking intensity by Previn.
On the same disc the wonderfully infectious "St. Paul's Suite" (its "Greensleeves"-inspired finale transcribed directly from the Second Band Suite) is served up with invigorating suavity by Sargent, who also does the honors in "Beni Mora," its Rimsky-fied Orientalisms about as close to Ketelby, or for that matter Maurice Jarre, as Holst ever gets. And although Steuart Bedford's "Brook Green Suite" misses the rustic charm of Imogen Holst's (on Lyrita), as with the other items on this disc it makes an attractive makeweight.
Which brings us to William Boughton's new CD of "The Planets," on Nimbus, the first recording I have come across that even comes close to the composer's own tempos on his 1926 electric set of this now-famous symphonic showpiece.
That means a speedier view of Holst's magnum opus than we are used to hearing, an excellent thing in the gossamer whiz of "Mercury" and forceful stride of "Uranus," here with more punch than usual. Ditto "Saturn," the relentless onslaught of age here stark and massive, as Holst surely intended.
For the rest, however, this is a smaller-scale performance than most and, like the same conductor's "Scheherazade," a bit stiff rhythmically. Where, for example, are the panache of "Jupiter," the crushing weight of "Mars" and, most surprisingly, Nimbus' customary sonic expanse? Admittedly the unearthly chorus at the end of "Neptune" dies out about as effectively as I've ever heard it. But contrast that with the boxy percussion, both here and in the appended "Perfect Fool" ballet, and compressed brass registration, so at odds with the spaciousness of Dutoit's London CD.
That still seems to me the one to get for "The Planets" alone, with Boult's EMI CD a good mid-price alternative. Even so, I find myself preferring Boughton's brisker, more lightly accented view of the piece to the more self-consciously showy exercises in sound many more celebrated conductors have produced.