New Classical Tracks: Holst's Planets

by Valerie Kahler
March 15, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks - March 16, 2010
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Andrew Davis/BBC Philharmonic Orchestra - Holst: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Chandos 5086) (Courtesy of Chandos)

Imagine you're gazing out at a moonless, clear, starry night, when suddenly one of the stars winks at you. What we call a twinkle, astronomers call scintillation.

A new disc by the BBC Philharmonic presents scintillating music by Gustav Holst---his exploration of outer space and its denizens. He wrote "The Planets" in the early part of the 20th century, before Earthlings had access to the amazing images we take for granted in the 21st. His suite creates its own images-- a series of portraits, delving into the character traits of the planets' namesakes. Jupiter, affable and boisterous...the Bringer of Jollity. Mars is the Bringer of War, relentless and marching to battle...while Venus offers almost a blanket of comfort and serenity as the Bringer of Peace.

What's fantastic about this recording (led by the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Conductor Laureate, Sir Andrew Davis) is that we're not just treated to a sparkling new performance of Holst's most familiar work. Two much less familiar suites are included as well.

"Beni Mora" is a souvenir of a visit Holst made to Algeria, and you can hear how he was beginning to absorb new, exotic influences and weave them into his own experience. Listen for the sounds of street musicians in the finale of Beni Mora. It's very much like you're walking through a busy street market...and hearing a fragment of a parade a few streets over, with the singsong cadence of the vendors, and here or there, a stray dancer with a tambourine. It's a mildly disjointed, slightly out-of-rhythm combination of elements that comes together in a delightful mosaic.

Dance is the theme of Holst's Japanese Suite as well. He actually learned these melodies from a Japanese dancer, who whistled them over and over until Holst had memorized them. Listen to the Song of the Fisherman to hear how Holst honors an unadorned pentatonic melody before dressing it up in Western harmony. The music doesn't aspire to authentically represent Japanese folk tunes, but seems more like an Englishman's delighted observation of a new set of flavors, sights and sounds.

That delighted Englishman was described by one writer as "a wit, a poet, a mystic. He was on familiar terms with the cosmos." I love that last phrase, and the image it conjures up: a guy who was on a first-name basis with Jupiter, and Venus, and Saturn, and Neptune....