POOR Holst: labelled a one-work composer, and that one work played virtually to death. We badly need a recording to show again what an astonishingly original piece The Planets is, both a dazzling orchestral showcase and an unsettling reflection of an age of change and decay. If Davis and the BBC SO had matched their recent triumphs with Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony and Delius's Paris, this could have been a valuable release. Instead it's all rather low-key: Mars is sound but not much fury, Venus is pallid, Jupiter is too staid to be jolly, and Neptune seems thoroughly insulated against any kind of other-worldly chill.
The playing is more than competent, the recording clear (if a little unatmospheric) and the overdubbing of the King's College organ (Davis at the console) skilful, but it doesn't quite come to life. Surprisingly, the eerily reticent Egdon Heath - rarely a success in concert - emerges more successfully. A disc of neglected Holst might have been a better idea - at least the orchestra would have come to it fresh. But I suppose it's The Planets that sells.
IT'S the mystery more than the certainty of our solar system that brings out the best in Davis. His Venus is possessed of a silvery, remote beauty; Saturn brings on the advancing years with pitiless inevitability, ruthlessly clean brass chordings at the climax; and Neptune's 'voices' advance and recede from another galaxy, the final fade as effective as I've ever heard it on record. I'm less excited by the extrovert elements. I've heard more unforgiving accounts of the Red Planet, and Jupiter, bringer of jollity, has come empty-handed. Too much English reserve. And where's the mischief beyond the gaudy colours of Uranus? Egdon Heath is bleak and secretive, superbly realised - another planet.
HOLLOWAY: Violin and Horn Concertos - Kovacic, Tuckwell, SCO / Matthias Bamert (Collins 14392)
WHILE neither of these pieces packs the punch of the recently recorded Second Concerto for Orchestra (NMC), the Violin Concerto is just as fascinating, its successes just as hard to explain. On the face of it, both works look backward - the Violin Concerto to the Faure song it takes as its starting- point, the Horn Concerto to the anachronistic but glorious lyricism of late Strauss - yet the results are unmistakably modern. Unlike our more nave conservatives, Robin Holloway knows that the past is another country, and he's a subtle ironist; but he loves that past too, and allows us sometimes to forget the distance. The violinist Ernst Kovacic has enough experience of ripe romanticism and troubled modernism to be at home with both facets; Barry Tuckwell, in the Horn Concerto, is more straightforward, expressively speaking, but that seems to suit the piece. Already I feel like going back and exploring further. SJ
HOLLOWAY's music is full of familiarities. You've passed this way before, but nothing looks quite the same. Holloway can absorb a style, recycle specific melodies and harmonies, and still evade charges of receiving stolen goods. In some respects he's a contradiction in terms: a forward-looking reactionary. His Violin Concerto is an effusive, seductive piece of work in beautiful, crystalline scoring. You don't have to pre-read the liner notes to know that glass figures somewhere in the equation: the play of light, reflected and refracted, is a key element; magic casements afford fascinating views. The character is scherzando-like, full of balletic grace, poised on some Viennese threshold. Childhood innocence, the Alban Berg Concerto? Just so. Only instead of a Bach chorale, Holloway's revelation is a Faure song, a magical moment where we're suddenly looking in on the piece, not out from it. Kovacic plays with relish and brilliance. As does Tuckwell in the Horn Concerto. Richard Strauss is Holloway's first cousin here. A jaunty, portly, sometimes rosy neo- classicism crossed with pint-sized Heldenleben heroics. There's a healthy flippancy in the mix, but a darker purpose, too: that's where Tuckwell pulls out the special effects from his predatory lower register. ES