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2 Excellent Works on 1 Disc-Holst's "The Planets", Elgar's "Enigma Variations", conducted by Boult
Classical in general
Member Name: beoram
Classical in general
Date: 18/11/01, updated on 18/11/01 (175 review reads)
Advantages: best version of both pieces (The Planets & Enigma Variations) available, fun classical music to listen to, good price
Disadvantages: analog recording (but excellent sound quality nonetheless)
I own three different recordings of ‘The Planets’ and two of ‘Enigma Variations’ (and I’ve heard more of both) – and this disc has my favourite version of both!
Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) conducts both pieces, and he is a fantastic conductor – Holst and Elgar being two composers whose music he directed many, many times. Boult, in fact, was a friend of Holst’s and conducted the world premiere of ‘The Planets’ in 1918!
I’ll continue this article by reviewing the two pieces separately and then giving a general summing-up of the disc as a whole:
Gustav Holst – The Planets (1914-16) [duration: 47.17]
 Mars, the Bringer of War
 Venus, the Bringer of Peace
 Mercury, the Winged Messenger
 Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
 Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
 Uranus, the Magician
 Neptune, the Mystic
If you’ve heard anything by Holst, most likely you’ve heard ‘The Planets’, or at least the first movement, “Mars” – it is often used in films (particularly “Mars”). I must have heard “Mars” in at least 3 or 4 films (most recently in the Bollywood [Hindi] film, “1942: A Love Story”—considering that Holst was inspired by Indian sources [see below], I found this amusingly appropriate). “Mars” has been called ‘the most devastating piece of music ever written!’ In fact, if you like ‘orchestral’ movie-music (like John Williams ‘Star Wars’ music), you’ll probably really enjoy ‘The Planets’. I don’t mean to under-rate ‘The Planets’ in any fashion by sayin
g this (nor do I think John Williams is anywhere close to as good as Holst) – I simply mean that it’s an easy classical piece to listen to, even if you’re not much of a classical music fan.
“Mars” captures the horrors of war quite uncannily(remember that World War I lasted from roughly 1914-1918)—bestial, massive and terrifying. “Venus, bringer of peace”, as the title suggests, reminds one of a tranquil pool in a green forest, with sunlight filtering through the leaves. “Mercury” is like someone running, feet barely (or not) touching the ground, and has a mischievous quality to it. “Jupiter” is the centre-piece of the opus (and Holst’s favourite movement) and is very noble and grand, and somehow uplifting (it was later arranged to the words of "I Vow to Thee, My Country"). “Saturn” is very heavy, slow and black-like a grim struggle for life. “Uranus”, following this dark bit, is a crazy, ‘magical’ movement—starting out slow and then speeding-up (and sometimes ‘crashing’). “Neptune” is the ethereal finale, with a chorus of ghostly female voices.
Holst was influenced by the music of Edvard Grieg (‘Peer Gynt’ – “In the Hall of the Mountain King”) and particularly Richard Wagner (‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’-see my review of Götterdämmerung). Though Holst is primarily known today only for his orchestral pieces (and mainly just for ‘The Planets’), he wrote many different types of music, his early work being mainly opera. He was influenced in his choice of themes by ancient Indian texts; his early work includes the operas ‘Sita’ [1900-6] (based on the heroine from the Indian Sanskrit epic the ‘Ramayana’) and ‘Savitri’  (based on an episode from the Sanskrit epic the ‘Mahabharata’), as well as the c
horal piece ‘The Cloud Messenger’ [1910-12] (based on the Sanskrit poem ‘Meghaduta’). He also wrote an orchestral piece based on the writings of Thomas Hardy: ‘Egdon Heath’ , as well as many works for ballet, chamber, string orchestra and other arrangements. His early interest in astrology is revealed in 'The Planets'.
As I said before, this is my favourite recording of ‘The Planets’, made in 1978-Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Sir Edward Elgar – Enigma Variations(1899) [duration: 31.17]
One day when Elgar returned home from giving music lessons, he was fiddling about with the piano, trying to relax after a frustrating day (probably teaching mediocre students…) and being improvising a little tune. His wife overheard it and complimented him on it – and then he set to speculating how some of their friends might play this tune: thus the ‘variations’. So the first track is the ‘original’ tune [probably more properly called a ‘theme’, I’m not a classic musician….], and the remainder are how Elgar thought that some of his friends (and one of their pets!) might play the tune, or how the tune might be altered to portrayed them:
 First Variation - C.A.E.: Elgar's wife, Alice, lovingly portrayed;
 Second Variation - H.D.S-P.: Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar played in chamber ensembles;
 Third Variation - R.B.T.: Richard Baxter Townshend, a friend whose caricature of an old man in an amateur theatre production is captured in the variation;
 Fourth Variation - W.M.B.: William Meath Baker, 'country squire, gentleman and scholar', informing his guests of the day's arrangements;
 Fifth Variation - R.P.A.: Richard Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnol
 Sixth Variation - Ysobel: Isabel Fitton, an amateur viola player from a musical family living in Malvern;
 Seventh Variation - Troyte: Arthur Troyte Griffith, a Malvern architect and close friend of Elgar throughout their lives - the variation focuses on Troyte's limited abilities as a pianist;
 Eighth Variation - W.N.: Winifred Norbury, known to Elgar through her association with the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society - the variation captures both her laugh and the atmosphere of her eighteenth century house;
 Ninth Variation - Nimrod: A J Jaeger, Elgar's great friend whose encouragement did much to keep Elgar going during the period when he was struggling to secure a lasting reputation - the variation allegedly captures a discussion between them on Beethoven's slow movements
 Tenth Variation - Dorabella: Dora Penney, daughter of the Rector of Wolverhampton and a close friend of the Elgars;
 Eleventh Variation - G.R.S.: George Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral, although the variation allegedly portrays Sinclair's bulldog Dan paddling in the River Wye after falling in;
 Twelfth Variation - B.G.N.: Basil Nevinson, an amateur cellist who, with Elgar and Hew Steuart-Powell, completed the chamber music trio;
 Thirteenth Variation - ***: probably Lady Mary Lygon, a local noblewoman who sailed for Australia at about the time Elgar wrote the variation, which quotes from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The use of asterisks rather than initials has however invited speculation that they conceal the identity of Helen Weaver, Elgar's fiancée for eighteen months in 1883/84 before she emigrated, also to Australia;
 Fourteenth Variation - E.D.U.: Elgar himself, Edoo being his wife's pet name for him.
The are actually two ‘enigmas’ in this piece: the first is who each variation portrays (answers given above :) ). The second is t
hat Elgar suggested that there is ‘a popular tune which does not itself appear in the variations but of which the theme is the counterpoint’, though he may have been joking. Joking or not, this has, of course, invited much speculation and probably theses have been written on the topic—possible answers being variously given as “Auld Lange Syne”, something from Mozart or “Rule Britannia”.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this piece, other than that I like it and also find it ‘easy to listen to’ classical music, particularly as it is made up of 15 short bits (the variations on the theme), rather than consisting of very long movements. This particular recording was made in 1970-with Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
If you know Elgar, you probably either know ‘Enigma Variations’ or his lovely ‘Cello Concerto in E minor’ (particularly the version performed by Jacqueline du Pré). I know less about Elgar than Holst (http://www.elgar.org has good info), so I won’t provide any more background for him here.
Even though these pieces were recorded in the 70’s, and thus are not digitally recorded, the sound quality is excellent and both were later digitally remastered, further improving the quality. Sir Adrian Boult, personal friend of Holst, conducted both pieces throughout his lifetime and the two pieces were recorded at the height of his career, after he had had about 60 years of experience! I don’t think you can find a conductor who understands either piece better than does Boult. Even if you are someone who must have DDD recordings, I only suggest that you consider that the conductor and musicians make more of a difference to the overall quality and you probably couldn’t distinguish this from a DDD recording anyway.
Overall, as I said in the beginning, this is a wonde
rful disc because I think it has the best versions of both of these pieces of music (at a great price, usually round £9). ‘The Planets’ and ‘Enigma Variations’ are classical music which are fun and easy to listen to, even if you aren’t a classical music aficionado.