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Holst’s The Planets, Op. 32 – No. 12 in our collection

The English composer Gustav Holst (21.09.1874 – 25.05.1934) was born at 4 Pittville Terrace, Cheltenham where there is now an interesting museum. He is best known for his suite The Planets, Op. 32 which took him more than two years to write (1914-16). It was an immediate success; much to the consternation of the composer, who was a very shy man who liked to be left to compose in peace. Holst composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none of them achieved anywhere near the popularity of The Planets. However works such as the St Paul’s Suite, Op. 29 No. 2, his two suites for military band, his ballet music for The Perfect Fool and his Choral Fantasia, H177 are all well worth listening to.

The Planets is typical of much of Holst’s music in that it blends austerity with voluptuousness. It is a suite of seven movements. Holst’s starting point for the music was the astrological character of each planet. As such there is no programme for the suite, and Holst pointed out that it has no connection with the deities of classical mythology. Clues to the meaning of the music are the subjects of the individual movements:

  • Mars, the Bringer of War
  • Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  • Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  • Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  • Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  • Uranus, the Magician and
  • Neptune, the Mystic.

The grand tune that ends the parade of themes in Jupiter will be recognised by most as the setting for the patriotic hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’.

Our recommended recording comes from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit and was recorded in St Eustache Church, Montreal with its quite unique accoustic. This, combined with excellent microphone technique, led the CD to win a Gramophone magazine ‘Engineering’ award in 1987.

Stream on Spotify. Buy from Presto Classical.

View the other works in our collection.

Solti – complete Chicago recordings

The trend for complete box sets continues with this recent release from Decca. Decca issued the set to celebrate one of the world’s most prolific conductor – orchestra partnerships with this deluxe 108-CD box set marking both the 20th Anniversary of the passing of Sir Georg Solti and the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

As with all ‘complete’ editions there are inevitably high and low spots but this release seems to fall between the best of Solti and the best of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In many cases there are earlier Solti recordings that are preferably to those included as indeed there are many fine Chicago recordings from other conductors throughout their history.

That said the performances contained are never less than good and often superb – there are no less than 24 Grammy award winning discs in this set! We have complete symphony cycles from Beethoven (2 sets – the first being the better), Brahms, Bruckner & Mahler. Indeed I would not be without Solti’s superb recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E flat major ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Georg Solti worked really well with singers whether in oratorio or opera and there are some fine examples of this. Haydn’s The Seasons and The Creation, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and an outstanding performance of Verdi’s Requiem together with Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The earlier analogue recordings are generally of a high standard and I recall much praise for the sound quality of the original Beethoven set when it was released on LP. Sadly the same cannot be said of Decca’s early digital recordings which are somewhat harsh. At around £200 for the set it is hard to give a firm recommendation, despite the luxury feel of the package and the undeniable fact that this was a significant conductor – orchestra partnership.

iClassical rating:

Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – No. 11 in our collection

Joaquín Rodrigo (22.11.1901 – 06.07.1999) was a Spanish composer and pianist. At the age of three he contracted diphtheria and lost his sight. Perhaps surprisingly, as he is largely remembered for guitar works, Rodrigo was an accomplished pianist and did not play the guitar. His status as one of the most popular 20th Century composers is largely down to two works: Concierto de Aranjuez and Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. Indeed his Concierto de Aranjuez is is widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of Spanish music and of the guitar concerto repertoire.

The Concierto de Aranjuez was composed in 1939 not in Spain, but like many great Spanish pieces, in Paris. The concerto is written in three movements and elegantly achieves a balance between the solo guitar and the orchestra that has inspired many more recent composers to explore this genre. The piece requires flambuoyant virtuosity from the soloist and the entire work seems to get to the very heart of sPanish guitar music. If you just want to listen to one movement then the soulful central adagio is the equivalent of a ‘greatest hit’.

There are many great performances of this work available among the one hundred plus available recordings. We would highlight Julian Bream (guitar) with the Monteverdi Orchestra conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and a 2014 recording of Miloš Karadaglić (guitar) with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as belonging in any collection. But if committed to just one choice then we must opt for the great Spanish guitarist, and friend of Rodrigo, Pepe Romero (born March 8, 1944). This outstanding 2000 recording with The Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields and the late Sir Neville Marriner also includes the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre.

Stream on Spotify. Buy from Presto Classical or Amazon.

View the other works in our collection.

Remembering Sir Georg Solti (21.10.1912 – 05.09.1997)

The great Hungarian conductor and pianist Sir Georg Solti* was born 105 years ago today. He is rembered as a fine operatic conductor and for his long tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Georg Solti spent 10 years as Music Director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1961-71), as well as being the Artistic Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years (1969-91) and of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1979- 83).

Solti made pioneering use of stereo recording techniques both for symphonic music and in simulating the theatrical dimension of opera, notably in association with the great recording producer John Culshaw. Perhaps the pinnacle of his recording achievements can be found in  Decca’s complete set of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, made between 1958 and 1965 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This cycle has been voted the greatest recording ever made, in polls for both the Gramophone (1999) and the BBC Music Magazine (2012): quite some achievement!

Watch out for our review of his complete Decca recordings box set next week!

* Georg Solti became a British subject in 1972 and thus eligible for a knighthood.