The Planets is one of those works that has received so much fame it is almost unbelievable. There are so many recordings of it that one almost becomes dizzy looking for a good recording of it. Is this recording one that deserves attention amid the vast sea of Planet's recordings? Well, I'm glad to say that it is. Sir Simon Rattle takes advantage of the shockingly talented orchestra and makes the Planets enormously musical, full of details and new insight.
But what distinguishes this recording is how successful Rattle is in making this piece sound like what's it's supposed to be--music describing outer space. While Holst has done a whole lot himself in making this music otherworldly, it takes skill and tact to really make the listener feel that this music isn't about things down here. Some people may not prefer Rattle's unmistakably ethereal approach, but I found it quite convincing. Featured on the second disc are the Asteroids, a set of 4 pieces by 4 different composers that Rattle commissioned for the express purpose of including on this disc.
To start things off, we hear a Mars that relies heavily on the mighty sound of the Berliners. Many accounts of Mars are bold, brash, and in-your-face. Rattle doesn't take this approach but rather emphasizes a sleekness that is bound to bug some people. I'm left feeling sympathetic, although I'm sure some people won't feel the same way. However, the ending of the movement is so undeniably terrifying that it makes up for the lack of boldness in the rest of the movement.
If the success of Mars may be up for discussion, the success of Venus isn't. It is so breathtakingly beautiful that I'm left with my mouth hanging open at the sheer skill of this orchestra. It features several solos for the first desk players. All these solos are done with such a sense of mysterious wonderment. Listening to this recording will leave you totally transported into another world--it's so spacey yet so musical.
Mercury fares equally well, with everything done with a transparency that allows the music to seem as if though it were coming from a great distance. Rattle pulls stunning details from his orchestra that only adds to the enjoyment. The biggest thing Rattle accomplishes is this tremendous mix of lightness and invigoration.
Jupiter starts out with strings that sound totally unreal; the whole of the movement is this joyous romp in a world that we know so little about. As Rattle said, this is the only truly British movement of the work. As in Mars, Rattle is more worried about the big sound and this sense that it's "out there" than he is in foot-tapping excitement. But the sound is so brilliant and detailed that I'm thoroughly convinced. The middle section, which sounds as if though it was borrowed from Holst's friend Vaughan Williams, is full of soul and meaning--enough to leave me fighting the tears.
Saturn is done with such wistful sense of unknown, full of yearning, heartfelt sadness. It's certainly one of Rattle's biggest successes on this disc. It's supposed to sound like old age is coming upon you, and, well, that's exactly what it sounds like. But there's a lot of struggle that comes from deep within the heart. It's simply unbelievably good.
Uranus should have a whole lot of muscle but, at the same, it should sound a bit clumsy and amateurish. And, of course, with the Berliners we can take the muscle side for granted. But Rattle lets loose with a dry sense of humor that makes the piece thoroughly compelling. It's so fun, yet there's this power behind it all.
I've never heard a Neptune that leaves me so stunned as this one. The female voices from the Rundfunkchor Berlin leave me feeling like I've left this world. EMI might get some of the credit, but the female voices sound so entirely "out there" that it's hard to fathom the fact that this was actually recorded by regular people. I'm left wanting to cry, it's so unbearably touching.
Colin Matthew's Pluto really belongs on the second disc, not only because it's now recognized as an Asteroid, but also because it is stylistically much closer to the musical Asteroids than the Holst. Personally, I find this undesirable after I've just recovered from Neptune fading out, but it's still a successful composition. The Berliners shine in the material, making it worth the listen.
The Asteroids that make up the second disc were, as mentioned earlier, written for Rattle to be included on this disc. Unlike the Planets, these pieces leave the realm of tonality. It's a much different world than Holst; it's one that is more worried about being spacey than being musical. And while it certainly doesn't give the listener anywhere near as much pleasure as the Planets, they are still worth hearing.
Things start out with Asteroid 4179 - Toutatis, written by Kaija Saariaho. This, the shortest of the set, is the most dreamy of the set. Unlike the others, it doesn't attempt to scare the listener. Mathias Pintscher's towards Osaris is much more brutal than the preceding piece, as it relies heavily on the percussion section. There is also a brilliant trumpet section (played absolutely brilliantly here). It's full of sudden surprises and even shocks. Mark-Anthony Turnage's Ceres is full of big brassiness, building up to a terrifying ending, where the brass give some strongly dissonant chords (this is, after all, atonal) followed by a tremendous crash. But it's Brett Dean, a former violist in the Berlin Phil, who really achieves something. His Komarov's Fall starts out in oblivion, slowly becoming audible. It takes awhile to really get going; the woodwinds come in with a striking passage and are accompanied quite rapturously by the strings. There's a beauty here that none of the other composer's quite accomplished. Things build up until there is a stupefying descent.
To summarize, this is a great album that I've greatly enjoyed having in my collection.