The reasons for Holst’s relative neglect, beyond The Planets and the Band Suites, aren’t hard to fathom. He wrote no large works in conventional forms, and never repeated himself. Even the Choral Symphony on poetry by Keats, here in its finest recorded performance to date (by Boult), owes very little to precedent–Mahler’s Eighth and Elgar’s The Black Knight, perhaps–and in any case features Holst’s personal combination of “spacey” orchestral color and rhythmic complexity (sample below). The music is both personal, technically virtuosic, and however beautiful somewhat cool emotionally. There is nothing else quite like it in the early 20th century.
Gustav Holst's "The Planets" is a brilliant portrayal of the other celestial bodies outside of Earth (except for Pluto because it wasn't discovered back when Holst composed this). Mars is violent and in a military march form. Parts of it have the brassy dominating sound resembling that of Darth Vader's theme. Venus sounds like something out of a black-and-white romantic movie, high lush strings, celesta, french horn and all, a personal favorite. Mercury is a very playful sounding piece, strong emphasis on the woodwinds and strings. Jupiter is definately my favorite…
Although best remembered for his devotion to the core Austro-Germanic repertoire, Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan did flirt with the English repertoire in the '50s and early '60s.
This version of Holst’s endearing masterpiece, “The Planets”, sounds very good in Naxos’ super audio 5.1 technology. I do not have the point one (subwoofer) hooked up in my house and assume, by listening to the recording in 5.0, that the timpani — which are already very powerful and forward placed — would be explosive if you listened in 5.1. The sound is very good otherwise, with wide ranging and natural orchestral body and timbre. It is not the best super audio sound I’ve heard but it is good and a big improvement over the stereo sound on the last version of “The Planets” I purchased, the one Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle released last year.
The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916, is a suite of seven movements. Holst's starting point for the music was the astrological character of each planet, though his interest in astrology went no deeper than its musical suggestiveness…
Some composers really deserve their reputation as artists whose fame rests on a single work, but with Holst the popularity of The Planets really has obscured the large quantity of good music he wrote in other forms. Part of the problem also stemmed from his daughter, Imogene, who was severely critical of her father's work and whose baleful influence persists to this day. These three choral ballets contain a large measure of delightful and wholly characteristic music. It's crime that we have had to wait until now for a complete recording of them, and fortunately these performances make a strong case for many more.
Ever been curious to hear a musical setting of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"? Well here's your chance. It's the second movement of Holst's First Choral Symphony (although he called it "First," there was never a second). You know the poem: "Beauty is truth and truth, beauty…." This is a highly enjoyable piece, and in sections of the first and third movement, the composer of The Planets makes some sounds that recall his most popular work. But there's much more to Holst than space music. He was a master at writing for chorus, his word setting always highly colorful and never stiff or "Victorian" sounding. This performance is the best available, so if you're intrigued, go for it.