Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (Susskind) - Holst: The Planets

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (Susskind) – ‘Holst: The Planets’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Where would modern science fiction movie soundtracks be without Holst’s ‘The Planets’? Ripping off something else, I suppose. But this new Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab restoration of the wonderful recording by Walter Susskind and the Saint Louis Symphony serves to remind us that Holst’s most famous piece is far more than a mere showpiece. Susskind was one of the few conductors to recognize and respect the subtle, mystical soul of this music. His performance may be more for connoisseurs than for the casual fan, but it is the sort of the performance that could turn the latter into the former. And the recorded sound captured in this reissue is enough to turn any listener into a permanent fan of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.

Walter Susskind was a Czech-born conductor who never quite made it to the top of his profession, as his relatively few recordings show him to have been more interested in lyrical beauty than in showing off. Which is not to say that this performance doesn’t have its blockbuster moments, for it certainly does. But what never ceases in this recording is an emotional richness that eludes all but a few performances of ‘The Planets’. This recording was made in 1974 for quadraphonic LP release by Vox, during the period that Susskind was music director of the Saint Louis Symphony. Other notable recordings he made for Vox include an autumnal version of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ and a broad reading of Smetana’s ‘Ma Vlast’. Although high drama wasn’t his forte, heartfelt lyricism certainly was, and it’s a shame more recordings weren’t made of this fine conductor’s performances before his death in 1980.

Any discussion of ‘The Planets’ has to at least touch base, even if only briefly, with one of the recordings Holst conducted of the work himself in the 1920’s. Preparing for this review, I revisited the 1926 electronic recording (the earlier one was acoustic) with Holst conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Though several intriguing moments present themselves along the way, the performance in no way does justice to the work. It testifies to Holst’s taste for fast speeds, which is typical of many composer-led performances, but I sincerely doubt if even today’s brilliant orchestras could make some of Holst’s speeds work. And the London Symphony of 1926 was in no way equipped to handle them, leading to some seriously approximate playing. Some critics have theorized that perhaps Holst was merely rushing the work to fit it on as few 78rpm record sides as possible, but when one considers that the average side length for a 78 was three-and-a-half to four minutes, it is clear that he could have take much more leisurely tempos if he had cared to, for most of the movements were longer than four minutes, but well under eight. And of course, the recorded sound from 1926 is basically a joke for music as cosmically grand as this. Thus, though it cautions against the continually expanding tempos of modern performances, Holst’s own stands as little more than a curiosity.

The conductor who virtually made a career out of recording this work was Sir Adrian Boult, who also conducted the premiere. Amazing to think, that premiere before an invited audience was led by Boult in 1918, and his final recording was made sixty years later, just before the age of digital recordings set in for good. Boult recorded the piece five or six times, and I have four of those recordings. None of them are as fast as Holst himself, though all except the 1967 New Philharmonia Orchestra recording for EMI are faster than the modern average. His monophonic London Philharmonic recording from (I believe) the early 1950’s, presents his basically grand but never histrionic approach, though it is clunkier in rhythm than the later recordings. His early stereo recording for Westminster with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra never quite takes off, as the Vienna players seem ill at ease with this music so redolent of early-twentieth century English mysticism. The aforementioned New Philharmonia LP finally begins to hit the groove, as it were, but it is undoubtedly the final 1979 recording on EMI, again with the London Philharmonic, where Boult gives us all his insight combined with the almost magical authority of age. Though he does nothing extravagant (well, other than the very broad tempo for the first movement), Boult achieves a performance rich in depths that most conductors don’t even realize are there. Recorded in rich analogue sound, it remains one of the greatest performances the work has received to date, combining wit and grace with intensity and an indescribable sense of rightness. In Boult’s hands, the piece leaves showpiece territory and enters the plane of profundity. It speaks highly of Susskind’s performance that he is one of only a couple other conductors who reach that same exalted level.

Holst’s total timing in 1926 was just a little over forty minutes, which is a figure that no recording has approached since. An early stereo recording that at least got in striking distance (around 46 minutes) was the Los Angeles Philharmonic record led by Leopold Stokowski. Old Stoki was quite the orchestral wizard, and he plays the effects of the score for all they’re worth, but anyone who knows the work well will be annoyed by his continuous tinkering with the orchestration, and occasionally, the notes themselves. After all, isn’t the gradual fadeout out at the end of ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ one of the most original moments in music? Stokowski rewrites the score to hold out the last two chords, bringing the work to a clear ending instead of letting it disappear in endless waves! Though its recorded sound may have been impressive in the early stereo era, it has not aged well, thus overall, it is a non-competitive performance, although it captures something of the fervor of Holst’s original.

The fastest post-Holst performance is the Deutsche Grammophon recording from William Steinberg’s brief tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony for a season or two before his death in the early 1970’s. Steinberg’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ is a terrific onslaught, and he achieves the rare distinction of outpacing Holst in one of the movements (‘Uranus, the Magician’). The problem is that despite all the lively energy, Steinberg never mines the depths of the later movements such as ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’. Boult’s final recording proves conclusively that those movements need not be ponderously slow to achieve greatness. Steinberg merely seems to lose patience with Holst’s oblique way of developing his ideas. Recorded sound is distant and on the boomy side.

The Planets is one of the few English works Herbert von Karajan showed an interest in, and he recorded it twice in his career, first in the 1960’s with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca, and again in 1981 for Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic. The Vienna performance is quite a bit faster. Though it is not in the Steinberg tempo range, it sweeps along with a great deal of fervor, at times leaving Holst’s details spinning off into a very reverberant acoustical space. The later recording has much more gravitas. Indeed, Karajan’s 1981 “Mars” is almost brutal in attack, although that may be a byproduct of the recording. In fact, the glassy early digital sound is a major drawback. Every strand of music sounds like it has been artificially isolated and then reassembled in a completely artificial blend which allows some details to stick out obnoxiously, such as the organ glissando at the peak of “Uranus”. I have not heard the remastering of the recording which was made for the “Karajan Gold” series, but judging by some of the other remasterings from that project, it may well have made this recording easier on the ears. But the continual problem I have with it is Karajan’s unidiomatic manner. One would guess he never studied any other Holst, nor much English music in general. The noble, Elgarian theme at the heart of ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’ starts with a heavy, leaden overemphasis and never recovers. Too many other passages misfire in similar manner to make this a recommendation.

The 1970’s were good for ‘The Planets’, giving birth to not only the Boult and Susskind performances, but also to great recordings from Bernard Haitink with the London Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. The Bernstein was recorded in aggressive quad sound for CBS, and has been reissued effectively on a Sony multichannel Super-Audio Compact Disc. It is a uniquely passionate and fiery performance which, in vintage Bernstein manner, milks the piece for all its drama while remaining sincere. In anyone else’s hands, this would be over the top, but Bernstein was a master of flirting with excess, and his Planets remains the ideal choice for those who want lots of bang for their buck.

The Haitink (a Philips recording from the early 1970’s) is almost Bernstein’s polar opposite, a very sober, at times even somber reading. And though Haitink’s performances of English music always speak with a continental accent, he never underestimates the seriousness of purpose underlying the music. This rendition in particular builds up a momentum of almost monolithic proportions. Never has ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ moved with a more measured, more intractable pace, utterly pitiless and so cold that it makes most other versions seem warm and cuddly. Jupiter is not only jovial here, it is Jovian. Anyone who wants a deeply committed performance but finds Boult too warm and Susskind too lyrical would be well advised to track down the Haitink. More than any other version, this recording is visionary, and if I had to choose one greatest recording of ‘The Planets’, Haitink’s would be it. The fact that it is not currently available is almost criminal. Best of all would be if someone would remaster it for high-resolution release. Even if it isn’t multichannel, it is still a shattering performance, and it was a deeply moving experience when I listened to it immediately after the Levine travesty described below. Bernard Haitink is often an understated, and thus underrated conductor. But as the saying goes, you should always watch out for the quiet ones.

Another notable performance from the 1970’s, also recorded in quad sound and now released as an EMI DVD-Audio disc that I would like to hear, is Andrй Previn’s London Symphony performance. Previn also returned to the work in the 1980’s for a brilliant Telarc recording with the Royal Philharmonic. Both performances have much to offer, with Previn playing the work’s color for maximum effect without ever tipping over the line into vulgarity. The recorded sound of both versions is effective, with the Telarc recording being both drier and more spacious, if slightly deficient in string tone. Though Previn’s reserve keeps his performances from achieving as much warmth as Boult or Susskind, he brings an irresistible swing to parts of “Jupiter” and “Uranus” that are most attractive. Additionally, as a composer himself, he remains constantly aware of the details and how they contribute to the large picture, which is no small feat in a score of this complexity. Previn’s recordings are the classiest of the glamour school of Planets performances.

One of the first fine recordings from the 1970’s was the Decca LP by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It features more flare and passion than his later remake with the New York Philharmonic, although that recording features more natural sonics. I haven’t heard the CD incarnation of this earlier version, but his other recordings from that period have transferred well. As is typical with Mehta, the performance is gregarious and colorful, with an emphasis on the sensual aspects of the score.

In 1979, Decca released a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic that should have been impressive, but somehow never gelled. Solti had already proven a fine hand in the music of Elgar by this point, but the more elusive Holst seems to have, well, eluded him. The notes to the original LP point out that Solti studied Holst’s recording before undertaking his own, and perhaps that is what waylays him. In places (though not all places), Solti pushes the tempo very briskly, and all the energy of the performance seems to go into stage-managing the busy entrances and exits of the players, who cope with the speeds as best they can. No particular emotional or philosophical view ever seems to develop, save in a broad but still somehow tense “Saturn”. The recording is from Decca’s brief period in the late 1970’s when everything sounded acoustically boxed in, shortly before they changed to the Technicolor manner of the early digital recordings in the 1980’s.

One of the earliest digital recordings of ‘The Planets’ was a fine one by Sir Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra for Chandos. For a time, it held the boards, as it combines a solid performance with broadly atmospheric sound. Ultimately, though, Gibson is not as distinctive as Boult, Haitink, or Susskind (though he likewise respects Holst’s seriousness), and the Scottish Orchestra sounds fatigued in places by Holst’s demands. It is still an attractive enough performance and recording to recommend picking up in bargain reissue.

Andrew Davis brings his usual no-nonsense vigor to his digital recording for EMI with the Toronto Symphony from 1985, but the hopelessly glaring organ track, clearly dubbed in afterward, sounds almost comical. Many nice touches are imposed upon by this overly multi-tracked recording. The performance is at its finest in a slow but relentless “Saturn”. What a pity we can’t hear it without garish spotlighting. For those more interested in audio special effects than in musical subtlety, this recording may be enjoyable, but for anyone who wants to hear an orchestra sound something like the composer intended, this is not an option.

One of the great modern performances came on the scene in 1987 from a perhaps unexpected source: Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony on Decca. When this disc came out, I was afraid that Dutoit would prove too light in manner for the weighty moments of this score, and when I heard the bouncy opening phrases, I was sure that he was about to prove so. By the depth-charge delivery of the big chord before the slow section in the middle of “Mars”, though, I had sat up in amazement, and I was not to lean back for the rest of the performance. To be sure, Dutoit makes the most of the colors of this work – indeed, no performance is more deliciously colorful – but he also brings a searching seriousness that leads to the most devastatingly powerful version of “Saturn” I’ve ever heard. Again, as with Bernstein or Haitink, this is a cosmopolitan Planets, demonstrating the piece’s debts to Debussy and Dukas as much as anything happening in England, but it also proves that the work can tap into greatness with or without local inflections, which is of course the mark of any masterpiece. A great performance, currently available at mid-range pricing.

1990 saw the release of a pops-concert Planets from James Levine and the Chicago Symphony on Deutsche Grammophon. I remember hearing the concert broadcast that preceded this recording, and I remember being shocked to hear Levine say in the intermission interview that music like ‘The Planets’ was worth performing, even if it wasn’t profound. This statement demonstrated Levine’s complete ignorance of what this music is about, but then again, his performance proves it all by itself. All is played for effect, with nary a sign of any real commitment. The sound is very crassly in-your-face, although it does show off the vaunted athleticism of the Chicago brass section. Of course, it also favors the brass so much, the strings could have stayed home for the loud movements. Not even the clumsy Bernard Hermann “Phase-4” Decca recording from the mid-1970’s is as bad a presentation as this. Though Hermann was out of his element trying to grapple with Holst’s big score, he at least made an attempt to perform it sincerely. Levine, on the other hand, briskly pumps the climaxes, then beats time until the next loud part arrives. Not only is it an insult to Holst, it is an insult to Levine’s own considerable talent. Levine is far too fine a conductor to make a disc like this.

The broadest performance of ‘The Planets’ I’ve ever heard was the Pro-Arte recording from 1991 by Eduardo Mata and the Dallas Symphony. It clocks in at over 55 minutes, putting it fifteen minutes slower than the composer’s own recording. Surprisingly, in many places, Mata is able to maintain these daring tempos, and he certainly appears more interested in finding the core of the music than in wowing easily-impressed listeners. But such extreme tempos take an extra concentration that ultimately drains the spirit out of the music. Combine that with an overly resonant recording that favors the brass and largely leaves the strings to fend for themselves, and this recording falls quickly out of competition.

Deutsche Grammophon finally hit gold with the 1994 recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra led with alacrity by John Eliot Gardiner, proving once and for all that he is far more than just a period-instrument specialist. To date, this remains the most spectacular recording of the work, and it is not surprising that it has been reissued on SACD for maximum impact. Gardiner’s performance is razor-sharp and stunningly pointed, featuring some of the most accomplished playing ever captured of this piece. But for all the brilliance of Gardiner’s X-ray vision, it remains a degree removed from the real core of Holst’s inspiration. Gardiner’s approach will certainly please many listeners, coming as it does right out of our world of sci-fi blockbuster movies and high-tech space probes sending us detailed pictures of the real planets. Yet Holst’s inspiration was the mystical and mythological aspects of the planets. Holst’s Planets come from the world of Aleister Crowley, tarot cards, and shadowy sйances, and one senses that Gardiner wouldn’t be caught dead visiting such superstitious territory. Thus, in the final analysis, it lacks that special magic that marks the great performances of Haitink, Boult, and Susskind. It is worth considering, however, that Gardiner’s disc comes coupled with a very interesting and rarely heard piece by Percy Grainger, ‘The Warriors’.

Susskind’s “Mars” might initially seem reserved, but it gets the point across without exaggeration, and the recorded sound gives it a cosmic sweep. Knowing full well that his orchestra was not going to outpower such rivals as the Berlin or New York Philharmonics, Susskind concentrated on shaping and characterizing the music, thus the performance makes tremendous impact in subtly musical ways. Listen, for instance, to the queasy, uneasy waves of sound in the slow middle of the movement. Susskind has an overall concept of the cumulative impact of these growing waves that works psychologically on the listener, slowly turning the screw a little tighter with every swelling of sound. The recording is immediately compelling with its visceral sense of atmosphere. Listening to the opening on the original LP or one of its later CD incarnations is reasonably effective, but in SACD multichannel, the textures pop out vividly. The tam-tam’s ominous roar is uncanny. You can hear the wooden plink of the string players’ bows tapping against the strings, an effect that usually only startles when heard live in concert. Holst’s layers of sound now can be sorted out like never before. Most impressive of all is the definite sense of performing space. The massive chords at the end of “Mars” can be heard travelling past you into the far corners of Powell Hall, placing you firmly inside the solar system of these planets, instead of being kept at a distance. ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’ is played with the title in mind, as opposed to some of the more sensual performances which couch it in terms of Venus as rouged-up love-goddess. Susskind’s “Mercury” isn’t as fast as some, but it is played with poise and finesse that demonstrate what a fine orchestra the Saint Louis Symphony had become in his hands. The spring of Susskind’s pacing works hand-in-hand with the tangibly atmospheric sound to make this movement come to life. “Jupiter” often becomes a frantic scramble in other recordings, but Susskind again emphasizes its larger-than-life good humor, with a soaring rendition of the trio. Only Boult and Haitink similarly succeed in giving us a truly cosmic “Jupiter”. Susskind’s “Saturn” is subdued and poignant, only unleashing full power at its peak. Many conductors treat “Uranus” as a piece of slapstick comedy, but Susskind is mindful of the fact that though his spells are initially clumsy, this magician gathers imposing power as he goes, until he is casting spells of frightening intensity. As Richard Freed so eloquently put it in the original liner notes for this album (included here): “He is a giant whose face we can never see, striding heavily through the skies, pushing aside the clouds with one hand and scattering stars with the other, his head thrown back in laughter that shakes the heavens.” Especially noteworthy in this recording are the thunderous timpani thwacks, discreetly highlighted by the original recording to clarify them, without moving them front and center the way many orchestral recordings from the 1980’s do. The magician’s final spell catapults us into the nebulous otherworld of ‘Neptune, the Mystic’. Again, the visceral sense of timbre helps one concentrate on the music in what is already a spellbinding rendition of this movement. Susskind perceives that the final turning point of the whole work comes with the quiet but devastating low chord, which comes slightly before the long, slow final fade begins. Less involved performances let this moment go for naught, but Susskind is aware of its emotional impact and how even though the dynamic is just above a whisper, the chord must have enormous weight. Here it almost seethes. The sound of the female choir floats in from the rear channels, perhaps not as far away as would be ideal, but still, quite deliciously out of this world. One would presume the placement of the choir was based on considerations of LP technology, as is the shortish fadeout at the end. The surface noise of records prevented a quieter, more lingering ending. Modern digital recordings have the luxury of holding on to those last glimmers of sound for an extra repetition or two, but this performance is too great for that minor shortfall to seriously compromise it.

No previous release of this recording has ever delivered it with the glory of this Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reworking. Warm, spacious, saturated depths of sound are featured here, making considerations of sonic hi-jinks in other recordings seem wholly unworthy. True, an analogue recording cannot deliver the floor-shaking lows of the Gardiner or Dutoit recordings, nor the piercing highs, but instead, this four channel SACD cradles the listener in an envelope of sound so vivid and glowing, it could warm you on a cold winter’s night. This matches Susskind’s lyrical take on the score perfectly, allowing it to bloom with richest possible atmosphere. The instruments fairly seem to burst with color the way a great orchestra sounds in a great hall under perfect performance conditions. The two-channel SACD program is impressive in its own right, but it is only in the multichannel deployment that the textures sort out and draw the listener in. This hybrid disc also includes a regular compact disc layer, which in itself is more rich and vivid than the previous CD incarnation of this recording. That makes this release tempting even for those who lack SACD compatible systems. The original Vox/Turnabout recording was engineered and produced by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz, and only now can we hear what a truly masterful job they did. Mobile Fidelity’s work here goes beyond restoration into the realm of realization, because the technology of the 1970’s never allowed for home playback of this quality. Quite simply, no one else in the business can match what Mobile Fidelity is doing with classic multichannel recordings on SACD. The work of Paul Stubblebine and Shawn Britton on this release go past skillful use of technology and right into the realm of acoustic art. Anyone with a taste for gorgeous sound must hear this.

In summary, for analytic clarity, Gardiner is breathtaking. For dazzling colors, Dutoit is the choice. For drama, Bernstein is the man. But for elusive Holstian magic, only three recordings out of the dozens upon dozens that have been made truly qualify: Haitink, Boult (1978) and Susskind. Haitink is visionary, but currently out of the catalogue. Boult remains irreplaceable for his quiet authority, but is only available on conventional Compact Disc. Only Susskind is available in gorgeous 4.0 multichannel sound, making this release mandatory for all Holstians, and strongly recommended for everyone else. Finally, thanks to state-of-the-art technology and the golden ears at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Susskind’s Planets achieves the classic status it deserves.