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Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, April 2015

The passing years have not dimmed the burning intensity and raw power of Vaughan Williams’s own world premiere recording from 1937. [The] transfer for Naxos is exemplary, and this deserves a place in every collection. © 2015 Gramophone

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, May 2014


The passing years have not dimmed the burning intensity and raw power of Vaughan Williams’s own world premiere recording from 1937. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer for Naxos is exemplary, and this deserves a place in every collection. © 2014 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, March 2011

A valuable historical document, but I can’t pretend that it’s much more. This is, perhaps, one to stream from the Naxos Library, though the classicsonline download is very reasonably priced. The sound of The Planets requires considerable tolerance, though I’m sure that it’s been cleaned up by Mark Olbert-Thorn as well as is humanly possible—he explains the process in the booklet. It’s worth hearing, however, if only to contrast with the new Chandos recording. Like Davis, Holst refuses to sentimentalise Jupiter, thereby helping to dispel memories of the jingoistic words which became attached to it, somewhat to his dislike.

The sound of the V-W recording is much better though…

Robert Matthew-Walker
International Record Review, April 2007

Two reissues of Holst’s The Planets, each coupled with music by Vaughan Williams, could hardly be more different. My colleague Nigel Simeone referred to Naxos's new transfer of Holst's own recording (in fact, his second) of the work, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 1926, in his Legendary Artists article in January 2007. This early electrical set, replacing his acoustic discs of three years before, contains aspects in the performance which may raise eyebrows, not to say blood-pressure, today - in particular, the composer's own very swift tempo for 'Mars' - faster than that of any other conductor I can recall. For 80-year-old recordings, the transfers are very well managed, and the sound is acceptable, without added reverberation. I would not have minded just a touch of reverb here and there as the studio acoustic for such a large orchestra is occasionally too dry. However, there it is.

Interestingly, the producer of the transfer, Mark Obert-Thorn, has gone to much trouble to correct the unstable pitch on the original discs. My only query is that as a result the performance comes out at today's A=440, which may not haye been the pitch at which the LSO played in 1926. On the other hand, it is as near as makes no difference, and the original filler for the 78 of 'Mercury', the 'Marching Song', Op. 22 No.2, is also on this disc. Overall, Holst's performance is a very good one and should really be known to every enthusiast for British music.

As if this were not enough, the CD is completed by a transfer of the overwhelming performance of Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer in 1937, which has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. This is as good as was the transfer on the short-lived Avid label, which also had Barbirolli's first (78rpm) recording of the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony in an equally good transfer. Might I suggest Naxos also considers transferring that Barbirolli Fifth, coupled with Sir Henry Wood's LondonSymphony? Both are badly needed on CD. This Naxos issue, in the 'Composers Conduct' series, is well worth having.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, November 2006

I was delighted to receive another recording from The Naxos Historical Collection. This acclaimed series provides the listener with the opportunity to hear both legendary radio broadcasts and studio recordings from the most illustrious figures in 20th century music. On this issue entitled The Composers Conduct we are treated to vintage recordings from two late-Romantic English composers conducting their own works.

The renowned restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has successfully remastered pre-war American Columbia shellacs and US Victor Gold label pressings. Not too many years ago, owing to the likelihood of experiencing a primitive re-mastering, I would have actively avoided hearing old recordings such as this. Tremendous strides have now been made in this field thanks to recent technical advances and the restorative expertise of leading audio engineers such as: Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos and Michael J. Dutton for his company Dutton Laboratories.

In my personal CD collection there are many favourite works for which I have accumulated a large number of versions, both for reasons of pleasure and study. My exposure to these two English orchestral masterpieces has been very different as I have listened to only a small number of alternatives. In the early 1980s I purchased one vinyl recording of Holst’s The Planets and one of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4,performances that served me well for many years. My vinyl version of the Holst The Planets was James Loughran conducting the Hallé Orchestra, circa 1975, on Classics For Pleasure CFP 40243 and my vinyl copy of the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 had Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia, recorded in London in 1968, as part of a treasured 7 LP box set of the complete symphonies on EMI SLS 1547083.

Several years later I replaced my record player going over to compact disc and I replaced these two recordings with different versions. I recall that I bought my new CD version of the Holst The Planets as a result of a persuasive review of the acclaimed 1986 Montreal account from Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal on Decca 417 553-2. With regard to the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 I selected the acclaimed account from Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1991 in Liverpool, on EMI Classics for Pleasure 5 75310 2.

I was so content with my digital versions of both scores that I felt no desire to replace them or add alternatives. In view of the age of this Naxos Historical issue I have decided not to provide comparative reviews and I will write my opinions on the Holt and Vaughan Williams conducting performances as I hear them.

It was in 1926 when Holst visited the large studio of Columbia Records in Petty France, London to conduct The Planets with the London Symphony Orchestra. In the opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War Holst employs a surprisingly swift pace providing a dark sense of foreboding. The brass, woodwind and string sections clash uncomfortably at times in the forte passages but the ear soon acclimatises to the sonics. It feels like Holst is about to lose his forward momentum at times in Venus, the Bringer of Peace and is about to come to a halt in the early section of this unsettling movement. In the second half of Venus the composer and his London players provide a welcome respite from the disconcertion with a convincing sense of calm and tranquillity. In Mercury, the Winged Messenger the orchestra communicate a sense of restlessness and disorder that was evocative of a bustling city railway station concourse. Holst and his players convey a prevailing mood of positive high spirits in Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity where the composer’s big tune is performed with impressive grandeur. With Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age Holst offers an unsettling picture of bleak and empty landscapes that I find evocative of images of the Great War such as an eerie hushed early morning on the Somme in the aftermath of a terrible battle. The movement Uranus, the Magician under the composer’s baton suggests a comical picture of sorcery that could quite easily have come from a Walt Disney film score. The final movement is Neptune, the Mystic where Holst and the LSO create an air of mystery through a shimmering mist.

Holst with the London Symphony Orchestra also conducts the Marching Song No. 2, from his two Songs Without Words, Op. 22 from 1906. It is an inconsequential work that was recorded at the same sessions and used as a filler to the original disc of Mercury in 1929.

Vaughan Williams was aged sixty-five when he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this recording of the Symphony No. 4. The opening movement allegro is given a confident and committed reading where the music is gritty and uncompromising with a character of troubled frenetic activity. Although it is difficult to sense exactly what the composer had in mind when writing the andante moderato movement Vaughan Williams directs the orchestra with assurance drawing out playing that contains an eerie and mysterious character. The knotty and sinewy toughness of the agitated nature of the scherzo movement is very much to the fore. Unfortunately the brass here come across as tinny. The volume is cranked up in a thrilling reading of the complex Finale con epilogo fugato. Vigour and passion are the key elements and this works tremendously well.

I wouldn’t take issue with the notes that accompany this release offering the viewpoint, “Although neither composer could claim to be a natural-born conductor, these landmark recordings … offer undimmed and thrilling recorded testaments.” I thoroughly enjoyed these fascinating and well performed interpretations and they contain a sound quality remarkable for their age. I certainly won’t be dispensing with my treasured digital versions but it is wonderful to have such amazing historical audio documents of two great English composers conducting one of their masterworks. Despite the obvious drawbacks resulting from the age of these recordings this was a release that I enjoyed from start to finish.

Colin Anderson
What’s on in London, August 2006

A real slice of history (and still flag-flying!), Holst conducting the LSO in The Planets in 1926 (his second recording of it). The composer is no-nonsense, the stylistic learning curve considerable. Vaughan Williams leads the BBCSO in his Symphony No. 4, from 1 937 a truly hair-raising performance. Superb transfers from Mark Obert-Thorn.

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