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Holst: The Planets, Elgar: Enigma Variations - Litton

Holst: The Planets, Elgar: Enigma Variations - Litton

BIS  BIS-2068

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Elgar: Enigma Variations
Holst: The Planets

Female voices from Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)


It is striking that two of the true classics in English orchestral music were composed within the short space of some fifteen years around the turn of the previous century. Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations have charmed as well as fascinated listeners since the first performance in 1899. In 14 remarkably diverse variations Elgar demonstrates his compositional mastery while creating miniature portraits of his closest friends, as well as of his wife and himself. By turns gentle, idyllic, tempestuous and boisterous, the pieces – which often run seamlessly into each other – nevertheless make up a coherent whole, like a group portrait taken during a country weekend. As for the enigma of the title, Elgar – who loved puzzles – maintained that another melody ‘went with’ the theme, and musicologists have searched for the answer ever since, without success.

In 1916 Gustav Holst completed another set of musical character sketches – his suite The Planets, in seven movements. These have little to do with astronomy and even less with the Roman deities whose names they carry. Holst was rather inspired by astrology and the suite actually concerns human character as influenced by the planets. The concept – like that of Elgar's variations – provides for a variety of moods and expressions, and in his score Holst took full advantage of these possibilities. To achieve this he made use of a large orchestra including much percussion, two harps, celesta, organ, two sets of timpani. He also included parts for certain unusual instruments such as bass flute, bass oboe and tenor tuba, and – in the final movement – a female chorus. Performing the programme in the warm acoustics of Bergen's Grieg Hall, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton give it their all in this sonic spectacular.

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PCM recording

Recorded in June 2013 (Elgar) and in February 2017 (Holst) at the Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 24/96

Recording producer: Ingo Petry (Take5 Music Production)

Executive producer: Robert Suff
Comments (6)
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Comment by Scott A. - May 13, 2019 (1 of 6)

I've often complained that there was no really great recording of The Planets on SACD. BIS has fixed that with this new one. Masterful performance & phenomenal engineering. The Elgar is even better. It's like someone broke into my house and upgraded my equipment; I didn't know it could sound that good! I am extremely impressed with this recording.

Comment by hiredfox - May 16, 2019 (2 of 6)

Scott, is this a new recording or one from the archives of the Litton era in Bergen that hasn't previously been released? What was the PCM recording rate used, should be on the last page of the booklet. Thanks. John

Comment by Scott A. - May 16, 2019 (3 of 6)

The Elgar was recorded in June 2013, and the Holst in February 2017, both in Greighallen, Bergen. "Original format: 24-bit/96 kHz" The producer for both is Ingo Petry (Take5 Music Production). Sound engineers: Elgar, Jens Braun (Take5), Holst, Andreas Ruge & Matthias Spitzbarth. The multichannel is 5.0.

There is a slightly different "feel" to the productions. I listen to the SACD stereo (and use a subwoofer). The Elgar has a wide and exceptionally clear soundstage, with a glowing warmth that I have to describe as perfect. The Holst is less warm, and has a slightly eerie atmosphere that is, I think, totally appropriate for the music. Opinions may differ on the Holst, I imagine, but the Elgar really seems definitive to me.

Comment by Jan Arell - May 17, 2019 (4 of 6)

There is a great recording of The Planets, conducted by William Steinberg in Boston. Not Sacd but Bluray Audio, re-released last year by DG. Make sure you get the 4.0 version, there is another one in stereo only. Coupled with a superb recording of Strauss’ Zarathustra. I will buy this new recording when it turns up at Eclassical.

Comment by Scott A. - May 17, 2019 (5 of 6)

Yes! The Steinberg/Boston is absolutely my favorite performance of The Planets. The Blu-ray reissue (which comes with a regular CD included) is very fine, but the recording is almost 50 years old, now, and really doesn't make an easy comparison to modern, high resolution recordings. That said, the Steinberg and this new BIS SACD are both mandatory purchases for anyone interested in The Planets. Vernon Handley on the (dreaded) Membran label comes in at a distant 3rd, for my tastes.

Comment by hiredfox - May 18, 2019 (6 of 6)

Thanks for the heads-up Scott. I like Litton a lot albeit he is not without his weaknesses, very much the 'romantic' interpreter, this repertoire should suit him down to the ground. We don't get much of his stuff on SACD these days now that he is back in the States leading a provincial orchestra.