To say I’m in geek heaven right now would be the most ridiculous kind of understatement. I’m delighted and then some. The reason is that for the first time in decades, I am listening to Bernard Herrmann’s early ’70s recording of Holst’s The Planets with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and finding it every bit as great as I remembered.
For a lot of people, The Planets is one of moldiest figs in the orchestral barrel, but this particular recording is one of the very first classical performances that grabbed my imagination and refused to let go. It’s certainly one of the first that I bought after getting a portable cassette player for my twelfth birthday. The very first cassette I bought with my birthday swag was the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed by Strauss’ Don Quixote. Having played them both to death, I went looking through the Sam Goody cassette section (which back then was still dwarfed by the vinyl LP stocks) and spotted the gray cover art of an LP that had been played by a seventh-grade music teacher, who I knew then and now only as Mr. Paterno.
Mr. Paterno was probably getting starvation wages from the Saddle Brook school district at that time, but he took his job seriously enough to play an astonishing variety of music. I was being raised in a household where Percy Faith, Mantovani, and Sergio Mendes were the only sounds heard, aside from the occasional dash of Aaron Copland. So it was quite a thing for me to hear Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and “Mars, The Bringer of War” side by side as Mr. Paterno sought to illustrate some point about musical composition. Which is how I came to buy The Planets, which knocked my socks off as soon as I got it home. So let me say once again, thank you Mr. Paterno, wherever you are.
The CD recording comes from ReDiscovery, a boutique labor of love that issues CDR editions of long unavailable recordings of classical music. The CD sounds just fine for what it is, and it’s good enough to make me wish some larger entity would reissue the music in a remastered CD or SACD format. But no company has seen fit to do that, much to my annoyance over the years. It was particularly frustrating because virtually all of Herrmann’s superb film music has been reissued on CD, along with much of his own orchestral work, while my beloved recording of The Planets remained obscure.
The likeliest reason is that Herrmann’s recording was pretty roundly trashed by critics when it first appeared. The biggest complaint was that Herrmann slowed the tempos, particularly on “Mars,” which other conductors usually take at breakneck speed. After years of relying on memory (and wondering if I hadn’t simply imprinted on the first version I’d heard, the way just-hatched ducklings take the first thing they see to be their mother), I can now confirm that Herrmann’s judgment was impeccable. No other version of The Planets comes close to matching the emotional power of Herrmann’s rendition. This is the recording to have if you want The Planets, as far as I’m concerned.