About this Recording
8.111048 - HOLST: Planets (The) (Holst) / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 (Vaughan Williams) (1926, 1937)

Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor


Both Gustav Holst's The Planets and Ralph Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 4, conducted by their respective composers have been landmark recordings since they were first made. They represent a particularly well-matched and apposite coupling, as the two men remained the greatest of friends from student days at the Royal College of Music in the mid 1890s until Holst's untimely death in 1934. Quickly identifying common ground and shared trust in all matters musical, their mutual respect for each other's opinion and advice was to remain staunch. New works were tried out and shared with a frankness and positive critical candour that endured well into compositional maturity, a significant difference of idiom between them notwithstanding. Vaughan Williams would certainly have been eager to steer Holst away from the Wagnerian polarity of some of his early works, while his envy of Holst's greater experience as an orchestral musician almost certainly contributed to his decision to go to France rather than Germany in 1908, specifically for lessons with Ravel, the study of orchestration being a prime motivation.

Although neither composer could lay claim to be a natural-born conductor, given the chance they could both steal a march from Elgar when it came to getting an orchestra on side to put over their own works; witness Holst's alert and fresh-faced stride through his brief Marching Song set down as a filler for Mercury at the last session for The Planets. In the suite itself, any passing evidence of fallible technique is more than compensated for by the special interpretative chemistry and insight unique to a communicative creator. In her father's biography Imogen Holst refers to his clear beat, economical and unfussy movements – 'there was never anything spectacular about his conducting, but it was brimful of nervous energy. At rehearsals he always got the very best out of his singers and players. They realised that they were faced with a man who, in spite of his easy, sympathetic manner, would never allow a single note to sound casual, but who cared for each note with a fiery intensity'.

With Vaughan Williams it was rather different. His route into conducting had been via choral repertoire, forming a society to sing Schubert Masses while at Cambridge and directing a Palestrina Society soon after coming to London. Although the Fourth Symphony is the only one of his symphonies that he recorded commercially, he conducted the premières of the Sea Symphony in 1910 and also the Fifth Symphony in 1943, together with many of his choral works. An association with the Leith Hill Musical Festival at Dorking lasted from 1905 to 1953 and it was here that he regularly directed the Bach St John and St Matthew Passion, the latter to especially memorable effect complete with piano rather than harpsichord continuo in the last year of his life in 1958. Many collaborators criticized the vagary of his beat, but at the same time bore witness to the compelling power of his eyes and a galvanising willpower that enabled performers to intuitively respond with something more than the notes and penetrate to the very core of the music.

Regrettably, the recorded legacy of both composers is meagre beside that of Elgar. Holst made earlier acoustic recordings of The Planets in 1923 as well as the Marching Song, but otherwise only the oriental suite Beni Mora, St Paul's Suite and the Country Song, also all acoustic recordings, are preserved. Vaughan Williams can only be heard commercially in his first studio recording for Vocalion in 1925 conducting The Wasps Overture and music from his ballet Old King Cole.

Now nearly a century old, The Planets remains the only work of Holst to have secured a place in the international repertoire. Exploitation of its popularity, especially through alternative twentieth-century media, has also put it into the bracket of a work that critics love to hate, its now ubiquitous and clichéd graphic style offering an easy target. Salutary then to hear the composer's own performance set down before cinema sound and television hijacked its visual potential. His way with the work is notably objective, direct and swift of tempo; the recorded duration is frequently ten minutes shorter than many present day performances. The resulting freshness and energy together with a refusal to linger or indulge the music are striking and bear comparison with Richard Strauss's similar rather self-effacing way with his own music. Despite occasional waywardness of execution from the London Symphony Orchestra of the day, these significant gains bring renewed appreciation of the more radical and innovative aspects of the work, serving to tighten the structure of contrasted moods and to vindicate the composer's choice of astrological example to illustrate facets of the human condition.

Towards the end of his life Holst himself famously lamented a lack of human warmth in his music, but perhaps that is also an intrinsic part of The Planets. Ironically, it could be said that only Neptune, the most distant and mystic of them, touches upon this very quality in its use of the female voice. Surprisingly perhaps, Holst was not a great admirer of Debussy, but he was much impressed by the three orchestral Nocturnes. Although not as overtly erotic, Holst's use of the wordless chorus has a similar sensual allure to the siren call of Debussy's last movement, vanishing into space to even more elusive and tantalising effect. Interestingly, Vaughan Williams wrote a short note on his fellow composer to preface Imogen's 1938 biography in which he reflects that 'Holst's art has been called cold and inhuman: the truth is that it is supra-human, it glows with that white radiancy in which burning heat and freezing cold become the same thing … He was a visionary but never idle dreamer … His music reaches into the unknown, but it never loses touch with humanity.'

In just the same way that many listeners came to hear Mars, the Bringer of War as a musical precursor of the Great War in 1914, the unexpected fierceness of Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony, given its première in April 1935, was quickly pigeon-holed as representing the state of contemporary Europe and the rise of Fascism. Although denied by the composers, these assertions have never entirely gone away. Within the context of its immediate predecessors in Vaughan Williams's output, Satan's music in Job, a Masque for Dancing and more especially the still undervalued and extremely vehement Piano Concerto, the consistently uncompromising and naked aggression of the symphony can be seen with more of a degree of inevitability, but the sustained and violent nature of its harmonic assault, even in the restless slow movement, is unprecedented and still packs a considerable shock and awe quotient. Safe harbours or pastoral comfort zones remain intractably absent.

Just as Holst markedly thanked Adrian Boult for first causing The Planets to shine at an incomplete private performance in 1918, Vaughan Williams was similarly bowled over by the conductor's première of his latest symphony with the expertly drilled BBC Symphony Orchestra, which had rapidly risen to worldbeating status under Boult's inspirational direction since its founding in 1930. Still reeling from the impact of the first three movements of Walton's Symphony No. 1 first performed in December 1934, the year in which Elgar, Delius and Holst all died, musical England was not expecting comparable shockwaves from the 62-year-old Vaughan Williams just a few months later and before the completed Walton symphony was aired the following November. Boult was a ready exponent of the work, not contenting himself with just the première, and there can be no question that the acuity of the BBC orchestral response for the composer-led recording in 1937 must owe much to his preparation. Vaughan Williams himself freely admitted that Boult had revealed to him how the second movement Andante should go. Compelling as they are however, neither of Boult's much later commercial recordings of the work match the visceral force unleashed by the composer in this undimmed and thrilling recorded testament.

Ian Julier



Producer's Note

The Holst sides were transferred from pre-war American Columbia shellacs (mainly “Viva-Tonal” pressings), while the Vaughan Williams was taken from U.S. Victor “Gold” label pressings. The best portions of three complete sets were drawn upon for each of the works. The Holst discs were originally recorded with a great deal of pitch instability, which I have attempted to correct in the present transfer. No reverberation has been added, and Neptune ends as it did on the original recording, without any fadeout overlaid by the restoration engineer. The side join in the last movement of the Vaughan Williams (around 4:03 - 4:10 in Track 12) corrects an error found in some previous CD transfers in which the repeated phrase was erroneously eliminated.

Mark Obert-Thorn



HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32

Mars, the Bringer of War
Recorded 22 June 1926
Matrices: WAX 1671-1 and 1672-1, First issued on Columbia L 1528

Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Recorded 2 July and 14 September 1926
Matrices: WAX 1717-1 and 1905-1, First issued on Columbia L 1499

Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Recorded 14 September 1926
Matrix: WAX 1716-4, First issued on Columbia L 1543

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Recorded 22 June 1926
Matrices: WAX 1673-1 and 1674-1, First issued on Columbia L 1459

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Recorded 14 September 1926
Matrices: WAX 1903-1 and 1904-2, First issued on Columbia L 1532

Uranus, the Magician
Recorded 2 July 1926
Matrices: WAX 1714-1 and 1715-1, First issued on Columbia L 1509

Neptune, the Mystic (with Women's Chorus)
Recorded 22 October 1926
Matrices: WAX 2039-1 and 2040-2, First issued on Columbia L 1542

HOLST: Marching Song, Op. 22, No. 2
Recorded 14 September 1929
Matrices: WAX 1906-1, First issued on Columbia L 1543

Tracks 1-8 recorded in Columbia's Large Studio, Petty France, London
London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gustav Holst

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in F minor
Recorded 11 October 1937 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrices: 2EA 5400-2, 5801-2, 5802-1A, 5803-2A, 5804-1, 5805-2A, 5806-1A and 5807-1A
First issued on HMV DB 3367 through 3370
BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ralph Vaughan Williams

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