The Planets, suite for orchestra & female chorus, Op. 32, H. 125
- Don Juan, tone poem for orchestra, Op. 20 (TrV 156) (17:06)
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Although best remembered for his devotion to the core Austro-Germanic repertoire, Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan did flirt with the English repertoire in the '50s and early '60s. There are EMI recordings of him leading the Philharmonia in Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" and Britten's "Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge" and rehearsal recordings of him leading the Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI di Roma in Walton's "First Symphony." His last affair was this 1961 performance of Holst's "The Planets" with the Vienna Philharmonic. Recorded in bone-crushing -- but still deep and colorful -- sound by John Culshaw, Karajan's view of "The Planets," like his view of Vaughan Williams and Britten, is decidedly superficial. This is not to say that his conducting is anything less than superb. Karajan was one of great technical virtuosos and he misses nothing in Holst's monumental score -- not the balances, not the details, not the colors, not the rhythms, nothing. But everything inside Holst's score is more or less missing: "Mars" has power but lacks point, "Venus" has beauty but lacks soul, "Mercury" has speed but lacks strength, "Jupiter" has weight but lacks humor, "Saturn" has mass but lacks fear, "Uranus" has muscle but lacks wit, and "Neptune" has carefully calculated gradations of dynamics but altogether lacks any sense of blissful departure into infinite space. Despite the superlative but distinctly unidiomatic playing by the VPO, Karajan's 1961 "Planets" -- like his 1981 "Planets" for Deutsche Grammophon with equally unidiomatic playing by the Berlin Philharmonic -- is fit only for listeners who prefer their English music deracinated. The same cannot be said of Karajan and the VPO's 1960 recording of Strauss' "Don Juan" that concludes the disc. As brilliantly conducted and as superbly played as the "Planets" but with the added advantage of empathic understanding, the "Don Juan" is as satisfying as the finest ever recorded -- and vastly more satisfying than the "Planets."