Holst: The Planets, Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra - Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5179
Classical - Orchestral
Holst: The Planets
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
CBSO Youth Chorus
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Edward Gardner (conductor)
For its very first album on Chandos, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain devotes its characteristic energy and musical mastery to an explosive programme that transcends daily life and earthly experience. It is helped by the enthusiastic, encouraging, and experienced baton of Edward Gardner as well as by the sumptuous yet detailed acoustic of Symphony Hall, Birmingham, all fully revealed in this surround-sound recording.
Their performance of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Holst’s The Planets is already a point of reference in the UK after the immensely successful Prom concert that preceded the recording. The concert’s five-star review in The Daily Telegraph praised in particular the orchestra’s ‘great attack and complete absence of anything routine’, while The Guardian emphasised the great performance of the orchestra in this ‘graceful and evocative programme’, especially the ‘depth and richness of sound that belied their youth’.
This unique album is a first milestone in what promises to be a superb discography for the NYO.
Review by Graham Williams - January 26, 2017
Chandos deserve the highest praise for making this impressive recording of the wonderful National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. This orchestra, comprised of musically talented teenagers - aged between 13 and 19 - started life in 1948 and has been the cradle for some of the finest musicians the UK has produced, many of whom have gone on to musical careers of great distinction.
Following a series of successful concerts during Summer 2016, that included the two works on this SACD, the orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner transferred to Symphony Hall, Birmingham to spend two intense recording sessions (August 8th and 9th 2016) committing their performances to disc.
The theme of the concerts that preceded this recording was Space, and it could be argued that Richard Strauss’s Nietzschean tone poem 'Also sprach Zarathustra', has only a tenuous link with that theme, thanks to the inspired use of its opening section in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film '2001 A Space Odyssey'. But it must be admitted that it makes a fitting companion to Holst's 'Planets - Suite for Large Orchestra' another immensely popular blockbuster, even though the latter's subject is astrological rather than astronomical.
'Also sprach Zarathustra' is not an easy work to bring off convincingly in performance. Too often what follows the celebrated opening bars can seem as something of an anti-climax unless the conductor has a firm grip on the work's structure and ensures that the eight sections that follow cohere into a seamless whole rather than becoming episodic. Thanks to his generally forward pulse Gardner achieves this most successfully while also stressing the sheer originality of the music and what in 1896 would have seemed its striking modernity. He makes no concessions to the youthfulness of his gargantuan160+ piece orchestra who respond wholeheartedly with thrilling and utterly committed playing of the highest standard. Special praise is due to the orchestra's leader Millie Ashton who delivers the tricky 'Das Tanzlied' section [Tr. 8] with complete assurance. Nevertheless in spite of the huge number of players (all of whose names are listed in the liner notes) the sound does not have the weight and tonal depth that one might expect from a fully professional orchestra. This impression is compounded by the perspective of the 5.1 multi-channel recording that, while giving every entry of the organ a room shaking presence, places the orchestra at some distance to the disadvantage of the strings in particular.
As with the Strauss work Gardner's 'Planets' is dynamic, swift moving and, with an overall timing of 48' 01”, the uncompromising vigour of his interpretation is both self-evident and most welcome. Beginning with a forceful and menacing account of Mars, in which the percussion section have a field day, each of the subsequent six movements is brilliantly characterized. Venus flows with stately elegance, Mercury is nimble, the very brisk pace for Jupiter really does suggest “The Bringer of Jollity” whilst the inexorability of Gardner's powerful and chilling account of Saturn contrasts with one of the most rumbustious account of Uranus I think I have ever heard. Finally, the accurately pitched wordless singing of the CBSO Youth Chorus at the conclusion of a glacial Neptune bring this memorable Planets, a performance that unquestionably demonstrates to the full the virtuosity of these young players, to a satisfying conclusion.
Chandos already have a fine SACD version of the Planets in their catalogue from Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic Holst: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 - Davis. That was recorded in DSD whereas the new one is in Chandos's preferred 24-bit / 96k Hz, and to my ears the sonics though good are are not quite as vivid or immediate as those on the earlier release.
In spite of my reservations, those looking for these two works in high resolution sound should seriously consider putting this recording on their shortlist.
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