HOLST:  The Planets.  The Mystic Trumpeter.  MATTHEWS:  Pluto.
Claire Rutter, soprano; Royal Scottish National Orch/Ladies of the Royal Scottish National Orch/David Lloyd-Jones, cond.

NAXOS 8.555776 (B) (DDD) TT:  75:18

Looking at the list of survivors in terminal Volume No.12 of Schwann/Opus, dead for more than a year, I was startled how many versions of The Planets I've heard, starting with Sir Ernest MacMillan's 1942 version with the Toronto Symphony on 78s (although never the composer's own from 1922-24 on pre-electric discs). Boult, who introduced it, conducted at least two surviving recordings, the best of these interpretively with the LPO on Classics for Pleasure. Previn with the RPO had champions, but Dutoit (lately departed in high dugdeon from MontrČal after 24 seasons) had even more, while a handful of diehards clung to Karajan (who recorded it at least twice, in Vienna and Berlin, but never persuasively for me). I've kept and continue to admire Vernon Handley's 1993 version with the RPO on that orchestra's budget-label, with the treasurable bonus of Holst's St Paul's Suite. Bernstein, Ormandy, Solti and Mehta all taped it, but never got the accent quite right, or - which is equally important - Holst's astrological portraiture.

Most recently we had Mark Elder on Hyperion (see Review) with Manchester's HallČ Orchestra, inherited from Kent Nagano who, before becoming principal conductor of the Los Angeles Opera Company in his native California, commissioned an additional "Pluto" from Colin Matthews. Although Nagano and the HallČ gave the premiere in May 2000, and 11 months later Elder recorded Matthews' addendum (erratum as I hear it), Naxos recorded it five weeks earlier in the City Hall at Glasgow (rather than the Royal Scottish Orchestra's home venue, Henry Wood Hall), with veteran David Lloyd-Jones in charge. If I was dismissive of the latter's Job (see review), the great neglected work by Vaughan Williams for more than 80 years, L-J's Planets are by and large the best I've heard since the premature launch of CDs two decades ago with a self-servingly nudged by Karajan. I'm not jettisoning Handley, but with this "Pluto" for reference by Lloyd-Jones there is no need to keep Elder, despite genteel recording and some of contemporary Britain's best orchestral playing by the HallČ.

For one thing, Lloyd-Jones (unlike Elder) gives us Holst's seven original Planets in sequence before adding Matthews "Pluto," which ends as "Neptune" does. Elder, on the other hand, segued into "Pluto," (Matthews' calls it "The Renewer"), then played the 12-minute Lyric Movement of 1933 for solo viola and small orchestra before giving Holst's own version of "Neptune." As Nero Wolfe says on the current A-&-E series, "Phooey!" Instead of the neglected Lyric Movement, Lloyd-Jones and Naxos added the still more neglected Mystic Trumpeter, an 18-minute "scena" for soprano and orchestra in a version edited by Matthews and the composer's late daughter Imogen. Sung thrillingly by Claire Rutter - surely a name we'll hear more frequently in the future - it is the best setting of Walt Whitman by three generations of British composers, beginning not with VW's interminable A Sea Symphony of 1910 but this work by Holst dating from 1899-1904. No American has composed a nobler homage.

But The Planets is Naxos'obvious raison d'etre for this issue, and Lloyd-Jones with borrowed Glaswegians outdoes NASA. In a bold, expertly balanced, 24-bit recording by Andrew Walton with Eleanor Thomason as principal engineer, we hear a uniquely menacing "Mars" (maybe the best since Boult was young), stressing dissonances usually prettied over; a gentle "Venus," and antic "Mercury" (Handley was even more Puckish but Lloyd-Jones doesn't eat his dust). L-J's "Jupiter" balances all four tempo changes superbly (no hint of Elgarian Pomposity), and "Uranus" is satisfactorily quirky with an organ at the climax you really hear - it'll rattle windows with a good subwoofer. Elder remains the better interpreter of bleak Saturn, Holst's uncanny depiction of that planet's complex astrological personality, but L-J's "Neptune" is other-worldly (if a shade less than ethereal). His Plutonic addendum points up, as Elder did not, Matthews' incorporation of snippets from Holst's other planets, and goes berserk midway without seeming arbitrary.

At double the price, Naxos' new Planets - with the vivid bonus of The Mystic Trumpeter - would be a bargain. Except for Handley and the RPO (who haven't a comparable organ in "Uranus"), it has all the good things most surviving versions in Schwann/Opus Volume 12 missed. There's an excellent annotation by Matthews, and Whitman's full text. Currently 8.555776 is on my (very) short list of the best releases to date in Y2K+2.

R.D. (April 2002)