Conductor Roy Goodman discusses his highly acclaimed recording of Gustav Holst's 'The Planets.' His 1996 version, performed on original instruments with the composer's musical preferences, is ranked No. 6 by the website Peter's Planets.
What is it about Holst's work that has made it endure for 100 years?
These days, especially since the 1960s — the Apollo missions, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and post-Star Trek and Star Wars, the mysteries of the planets seem to maintain a universal attraction.
In 1913, Holst had shown a passing interest in astrology (and horoscopes!), which became a catalyst for his inspiration the following year, when he started the first of his Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra — destined to become his Planets. But we should remember that in 1914, Holst had never heard a machine gun, and the tank had not been invented — in fact, Holst may as well have been thinking of horses at the beginning of "Mars."
His brief title description for each ("The Bringer of War"/"Peace"/"Jollity" for "Mars"/"Venus"/"Jupiter," respectively, etc.) gives us some insight, but Holst was very much by writing the music for himself — there was no commission. In the opening of "Uranus," we even find a seven-bar brass and timpani incantation thundering out his own initials: GuStAv Holst (G, Es=E-flat, A, H=B).
However, with increasing performances of the movements singly (or in shorter groupings) the music rapidly gained increasing international familiarity — in London, Birmingham, and then Chicago, New York and Berlin.
The Planets certainly put Holst on the map — yet the modest composer was somewhat ambivalent of his success. He was quite reluctant to adapt his sweeping central melody in "Jupiter" into a patriotic hymn, setting a text by Cecil Spring Rice, "I Vow to Thee, My Country" (published in Songs of Praise 1925/6) because he (rightly) feared that it might then be performed too sentimentally in its original orchestral context.
But live performances are surprisingly rare; the enduring popularity of The Planets relies heavily on the many recordings, and it also boasts over 90 soundtrack credits in both films and TV programs.
Although I played violin as concertmaster for a performance in the late 1970s, this 1996 recording was my very first time as conductor — and I've only been asked to conduct it twice since then.
There are major musical and logistical difficulties in the performance — not least the enormous forces required: including quadruple winds, six horns, two timpanists, two harps, organ and ladies' chorus. It's also quite a lengthy suite — at a couple of minutes longer than Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, even in my own recordings of both works!
The ending is problematic to bring off effectively, being very quiet and exposed, with a fade to nothing of the unaccompanied seven-part ladies' voices.
The most powerful and popular movements are surely "Mars" and "Jupiter," which might successfully have book-ended the whole suite.
What qualities of your recording of The Planets still resonate with you more than 20 years after it was made, and why does it appeal to you?
I spent months of preparation before this exciting and challenging project — meticulously studying the autograph score and Holst's acoustic 1922/3 and electrical 1926 recordings (both with the London Symphony Orchestra), as well as early ones with Albert Coates and Adrian Boult. This involved many weeks of marking both my score and the full orchestral parts, with revised dynamics, articulation, accents and tempi.
Observing Holsts' clear intentions, there are several important tempo considerations:
• The basic tempo and character for both "Mars" and "Saturn" — for me the 5/4 ostinato pattern in "Mars" is a hierarchically subdivided 3+2 at quarter note = 169; and, in "Saturn," where Holst takes just 6:53 minutes in 1926, it's almost two-in-a-bar, at quarter note = 80. Solti takes almost 50 percent longer, at quarter note = 9:52, as do several others.
• Not exaggerating (or starting too soon) the Rallentando al Fine marking in the last six bars of "Mars."
• Maintaining tempo in the Morendo (i.e. just fading away) at the end of "Venus."
• Observing the specified tempo relationships in "Jupiter": Old quarter note equals new quarter note at bar 108, old half note equals new quarter note at bar 194, and old bar equals new bar at bar 348.
Unfortunately, we had far too little time. I met the assembled New Queen's Hall Orchestra (a pickup band) for the very first time in Studio 1 Abbey Road at 2 p.m. on Saturday May 11, 1996, and we just had four punishing three-hour sessions to balance/rehearse/record The Planets and St Paul's Suite — to finish by 5 p.m. the following day! The string players were using gut upper strings — in fact the leader, Robert Gibbs, was playing on exactly the same violin as used in the premiere, which sounds lovely in his solos! The brass were using narrower bore instruments, but the most significant difference is the authentic French system oboes and bassoons, favored in British orchestras at that time.
I suspect that a few of the woodwind players, mostly highly professional members of the big modern London orchestras, had only recently got their "antiques" down from the attic and dusted them off!
This did not make our daunting task any easier, for them or me — intonation, particularly in "Venus" and "Saturn," was initially wildly variable!
Also, apart from a few colleagues, the majority of the players were not accustomed to my own established "house"-style approach to phrasing (slurs, accents and articulation), vibrato and portamento, and there was insufficient time to convincingly establish my personal "dialect," with the possible distraction of our historical seating layout, with the violins left and right opposite, and the double basses raised center stage at the very back.
I'm sorry there was a minimal approach by the producer to editing the tapes, and, although I'm still very proud of the final result, it could have been better with more critical editing.
Naturally, I'm delighted that this CD has been reviewed so favorably, but just three places might serve as examples that I consider below par and that sadden me:
• "Jupiter," bar 246: Triangle is absent.
• "Jupiter," bars 385-7: Second Timpani is catastrophically missing on the take that was used.
• "Saturn," bars 77-92: The difficult syncopated rhythm and ensemble is very poor (mea culpa?).