Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets was a formative experience of musical fusion for me. It showed me at an early age that the largely abstract classical music I’d grown up with could be merged with the themes and images of science and science fiction that swirled in my adolescent brain.
Amalgamations like this blew my young mind – Jethro Tull and Pierre Gossez entangling jazz and J.S. Bach; early Vangelis stewing up Lovecraftian horror in a pot of youthful angst. On a grander scale, The Planets opened up realms of artistic possibility that nothing else had.
My old LP of The Planets being long gone, it’s a great pleasure to welcome a new recording by the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern. Recorded artfully by Grammy winner Keith O. Johnson and Skywalker Sound engineer Sean Royce Martin, it’s out now on the Reference Recordings label.
Stern and the orchestra bring pointed vigor to the familiar “Mars, the Bringer of War” movement with its pounding flatted fifths and 5/4 beat, and to the rollicking spirit of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” They take a studied and sensitive approach to the quiet “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.” I especially appreciate their fully imagined renditions of the less iconic movements – the fleet feet of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger”; the thoughtful “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”; the Wagnerian boil and mysterious organ-drenched closing strains of “Uranus, the Magician”; and the women’s chorus that slips subtly into the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.”
The CD also includes the “Ballet Music” from Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool. Inspired, like The Planets, by mysticism, its three dances, dedicated to the “Spirits” of the Earth, Water, and Fire are, as Holst said of the movements of The Planets, “foils to one another.” Stern takes a bright, spirited approach to this evocative 10-minute opus, from the introductory trombone fanfare through the brassy, ethereal, and kinetic dances that follow. The orchestra’s brass players shine especially. Positioned after The Planets, the piece reads as an outward ripple of the larger, more famous work. Holst’s operas aren’t performed very often, but they are worth seeking out.
If Holst’s most famous work is The Planets, his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams is often first encountered through Dona Nobis Pacem, with text partly by Walt Whitman. Another recent Reference Recordings release, this one from the Richmond Symphony, pairs that cantata with the suite of choral pieces Children of Adam by Mason Bates, which is also partly inspired by Whitman. Bates is a contemporary American composer (and DJ) whose music seems to be popping up everywhere I look.
Plenty of excitement and well-sustained tension carries the wordy first movement, a setting of Whitman’s “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers.” Suggestive instrumental effects, another major palette Bates deploys in the suite, appears immediately thereafter in a Psalm setting. Whitman returns with a fanfare for an otherwise surprisingly muted “I Sing the Body Electric.”
The suite’s centerpiece is built on a simple incantation from the Algonquian, thanking the Great Spirit for the homeland of Turtle Island. With few words, repeated many times, and accompanied by fluttering woodwinds and knocking percussion, Bates creates an appealing and unpredictable pan-cultural hymn built on simple themes and the diverging scales he employs to good effect numerous times in the suite.
Industrial-age poetry by Carl Sandburg inspires the mechanically suggestive next movement, followed by a return to the Old Testament for the Book of Genesis, and a completion of the “story of mankind” cycle with Whitman’s “To the Garden, the World.” The music correlates closely with the text – a swirling melody for “the slow twist…of the wind” in Sandburg’s “Smoke and Steel,” a stabbing beacon of sound when God wills light into being, the almost priapic momentum of the frankly sexual text from “To the Garden, the World.”
Children of Adam is a thrilling and thoughtful piece, here performed and recorded with strength and clarity.
For deeper gravitas, though, let the CD spin on for Vaughan Williams’ sublime Dona Nobis Pacem.
The Richmond Symphony conducted by Steven Smith, with the Richmond Symphony Chorus directed by Erin R. Freeman, and with soloists Michelle Areyazga (soprano) and Kevin Deas (bass-baritone), seem to fully understand how this Vaughan Williams masterpiece never sounds like it’s trying for effect. The balance among orchestra, chorus, and soloists is consistently well managed. The music flows through moods and meanings with a momentum that seems inevitable.
As the movements slide smoothly into one another, the suite develops a holistic quality that this full-blooded performance makes the most of. The cool blossomings of the “Agnus Dei” links to the martial force of “Beat! beat! drums!” Then Vaughan Williams draws sublime beauty out of tragedy in his settings of Whitman’s “Reconciliation” and expansive “Dirge for Two Veterans.” The unrelieved despair of “The Angel of Death,” with its stark parallel harmonies and power-chord attack, finds succor in the optimistic Brahmsian glow of the comforting Biblical verses in the “O man greatly beloved” finale.
Smith brings out a thrilling emotionality from the whole thing, aided by understated and acutely sensitive work from Areyazga and Deas and expert musicianship from the chorus and orchestra. Dona Nobis Pacem is music that’s hard to forget – it has stuck in my brain since I first heard it as a child. This recording is a fine and most welcome revival.
For information on both these albums, visit the Reference Recordings website, where you can also purchase them. They’re also available at Amazon.com.