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Holst: The Planets - Stern

Holst: The Planets - Stern

Reference Recordings  RR-146

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Holst: The Planets, The Perfect Fool

Kansas City Symphony
Michael Stern (conductor)


Reference Recordings proudly presents Holst's best known and beloved works in an outstanding interpretation from Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. This release was recorded in the beautiful and acoustically acclaimed Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It was produced by David Frost, six-time winner of the Classical Producer of the Year GRAMMY® award. It was recorded by RRs engineering team, comprised of GRAMMY® winning engineer and Technical Director Keith O. Johnson, and multi-GRAMMY® nominated engineer Sean Martin. This is the seventh in Reference Recordings series with Kansas City Symphony. Previous albums are "Shakespeare's Tempest"; the Grammy® Award-winning "Britten's Orchestra"; an Elgar/Vaughan Williams project; "Miraculous Metamorphoses"; an all-Saint-Saëns album featuring the magnificent Organ Symphony, and the music of contemporary American composer Adam Schoenberg (nominated for two Grammy® Awards).

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - October 18, 2019

This is the thirty-sixths version of The Planets to appear in high resolution. ‘Embarras de choix’ we would say in France. Of course, not all are good ones; not all are financially affordable, and there may be other reasonable or unreasonable reasons to delete any from a shortlist to facilitate one’s choice. But what remains is still considerable.

Beyond the so-called Big Five - maybe more, but not by much - many Europeans look at American orchestras with a particularly cautious eye, believing that big sound, often referred to as ‘American sound’, doesn’t necessarily equal good music. However, set apart from all chauvinism, the Kansas City Symphony under its current Musical Director, Michel Stern, prove them wrong. Listening blindfolded, as I did, it is difficult to hear differences in comparison with some of the Big Five, and should someone think there is, it could well be that Kansas is amongst the better ones.

There are, however, other aspects to be taken into account. The "Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra", as the original title was, demand the complete ‘works’ of an orchestra, with no less than 4 percussionists handling a double set of tympany and all the rest in its arsenal. The brass, too, will make some of Mahler’s orchestration look lean. A glance at the members listed in the booklet, Kansas City Symphony certainly has the required numbers (Roster as of January 2015). This opens the next door: The importance of having good sound engineering to avoid congestion in the louder passages, the organ and the 160 choristers in the final movement, whilst keeping the wide dynamics fully intact. In this department, we find ourselves in good hands, namely the experienced hands of ‘Prof’ Johnson’s 24-bit HDCD recording set-up. Whilst I find that on the whole SoundMirror seems better equipped for the RR’s larger orchestral recordings, I must admit that Keith Johnson, who hasn’t been without reason on many shortlists, including Grammy’s, does here remarkably well. A stable soundstage, albeit with somewhat more surround than I would have wished for, having nonetheless the advantage of drawing the audience into the action. The only thing I had to adjust was turning up the volume for best result.

The question then is: How does the playing measure up to other notable performances. Is an American conductor sufficiently equipped to rendering this massive suite as a born Englishman of the size of a Sir Adrian Boult? I think so. Not only are Michael Stern’s (Yes, indeed, Isaac Stern’s son) musical credentials impressive, he also has conducted a number of major orchestras in the United Kingdom (LSO, LPO, BBC Symphony). Listening to his inventive colouring of each of the planets, it becomes unquestionably clear that he is, indeed, familiar with the English musical idiom.

Stern takes the listener on an extra-terrestrial journey during which a picture, on occasion reminiscent of the English countryside, dramatically unfolds, giving evidence of why 'The Planets have become so popular. Traveling from the dark grey, thundery and rain-splashed warriors of Mars, to the warm and lush greens of Venus, the nervous yellow chatter on Mercury, the red and white hats of the funny faces and festive feasters on Jupiter, to the rusty dark brown of aging Saturn is nothing less than remarkable. Steering, moreover, the listener via the glowing purple of the wizard of Uranus, to the mystical blue haze of Neptune, finally letting the voyage slip into heavenly thin air under the humming sounds of astrological syrens is masterly. In short, a performance, shaped with an orchestra and choir responding accurately at every turn of the various moods, that will linger on after it’s finished.

The following ballet music of the ‘Perfect Fool’, gives 10 more minutes of ‘Perfect Filler’. It fits in so very well that people not familiar with ‘The Planets’ (are there any?) could have thought that more planets had been added, like, for instance, Pluto, which existence was not known at the time Holst wrote the score, or the mysterious Ceres. I hardly dare say it, but I find this addition, with its dance-like melodies and clever orchestration, one of the best parts of this album.

Taken everything together, Reference Recording has produced an alternative that merits positive consideration for those wishing to upgrade from an older RBCD to a qualitative first-rate rendition.

Recorded in 2015, I wonder why it took Reference Recordings so long to release it!

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2019 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comments (7)
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Comment by Dissonance - September 12, 2019 (1 of 7)

Every new SACD by Reference Recordings is a must-buy. There is coming also very interesting SACD recording by Thierry Fischer and Utah Symphony, featuring Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Lieutenant Kijé Suite (FR735SACD). The album is available for pre-order at Presto Classical.

Comment by john hunter - September 13, 2019 (2 of 7)

Thanks for the heads up.A first rate Nevsky is needed.

Comment by hiredfox - September 27, 2019 (3 of 7)

I wouldn't say a "must buy" although most are pretty good. There are two distinct series of recordings emanating from RR, traditionally they have used "Professor" Johnson and his PCM set to record for the label but more recently Sound Mirror have been commissioned to record in state-of-the-art 4 x 64 DSD. There is no question in my mind that the Sound Mirror recording quality is a class above especially as revealed on the SA-10.

Whether or not we should shape our preferences in these terms, the more life-like and revealing the recording of the nuances of performance the better the listening experience, at least it is for me.

Comment by john hunter - October 7, 2019 (4 of 7)

Couldn't agree more.
Always thought that the Prof's recording were somewhat overrated.
The frequent perspective changes I found somewhat annoying.

Comment by john hunter - October 18, 2019 (5 of 7)

So Adrian,any more specific comments on the recording?
A decent sound stage not obviously over miked?
A reasonable or excellent 3D sound stage in MC?
Looking forward to more details if you would be so kind.
I value your input.

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - October 18, 2019 (6 of 7)

Thanks for your input John. If you want to know more about the way Keith Johnson works, you may want to consult his web site. His microphone techniques range from purist to complex, depending on the musical forces and the performing space involved. Sound depends furthermore on the quality of your system. The main thing of course is the musical value and the orchestral balance. The stars reflect what I think. But your own ears are always your best judge. That said I have added a line on sound for your benefit and that of others with the same questions.

Comment by john hunter - October 20, 2019 (7 of 7)

Thanks Adrian.I appreciate your comments.