Friday, December 13, 2002


Disc: Holst 'Planets' w. Colin Matthews 'Pluto'
Conductor: David Lloyd-Jones
Performer: Clare Rutter
Orchestra: Royal Scottish National Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Label: Naxos 8555776
Released: 11 March, 2002

The recordings of Gustav Holst's 'Planets' are legion. Amazon has over 100 listings. Numerous too are the lesser composers who have aped the conventions of 'Mars' and 'Jupiter', in particular, to make themselves a fast buck out of writing film scores. Now, heaven help us, we have a toy classics-lite ensemble named after this well-known suite.

In the midst of all this faux popularity it is easy to forget just what a quality work 'The Planets' is. This new edition from Naxos, marking their fifteen years as a high selling classical label, provides an excellent stimulus to the memory. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra gives a fine account of itself in its rich, enthusiastic, but never overbearing approach to the score. This should not surprise us, because they are led in their endeavours by composer Colin Matthews. He has more reason than most to have given Holst's most famous work detailed attention, since he bravely responded to a commission from Kent Negano and the Halle orchestra to write a sequel. His 'Pluto: The Renewer' is included on this disc, along with a stirring rendition of Holst's little known 'The Mystic Trumpeter' (opus 18), based on a poem by Walt Whitman. Clare Rutter (sop) does more than enough to convince us that this orchestral song is worth listening to again.

What of Matthews' endeavours? The Halle first recorded and released 'Pluto' (named after the planet discovered in 1933, a year before Holst died) in 2001, on the Hyperion label. Comparisons with that disc are inevitable. Both are strong, but perhaps not surprisingly Matthews' own baton seems to bring a little greater clarity and contrast to his own composition. The RSNO's performance on 'Mars' and 'Venus' is also much more wilful than that of the Halle, and they match up well to each other on the more meditative movements and sequences too.

Opinion will obviously be divided, but I think Matthews has written a sequel of compelling authority and vision. He segues his composition out of the embers of 'Neptune', picking up its mystical resonance before moving us towards a couple of dissonant climaxes. The conclusion too his piece is mesmerising. There are plenty of Holstian references in this 6 minute 42 second score, but Matthews does not try straightforwardly to 'write Holst'. He is his own man. His piece blends in well with the other Planets - as becomes more apparent on successive listenings to the whole refigured work. But it does not mimic. Its language is inventive, such that only those who feel the need to render modern in inverted commas when they use it as an epithet to music are likely to miss the point.

The Halle give the nervous or traditional listener the 'proper' ending to Holst's suite as well as Matthews' addendum, in case they want to re-programme their CD player accordingly. Naxos and the RSNO go that natural step further by integrating the two without qualification, and they also provide us with a first-rate account of that Holst 'scena' for soprano and orchestra too. A milestone that deserves high praise. My advice would be to get both versions. Then try out some of Matthews' other orchestral works on the 1996 Collins Classic recording, which includes 'Hidden Variables', 'Memorial', 'Quatrain' and 'Machines And Dreams'.

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