Gustav Holst's The Planets
Zubin Mehta conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Recording engineers James Lock and Colin Moorfoot
Producer John Mordler
by Ray Chowkwanyun
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Number: London 452910
Even if you don't like classical music, you need this sonic blockbuster to test your system to its limits. This CD has an incredible dynamic range unmatched by any jazz or rock album. No jazz or rock album will give your system as severe a workout. Rock music may be loud but it tends to stay at the same level of loudness. Only full orchestral music goes from a whisper to a roar in a single heartbeat. Jazz is somewhere in between, but still without the same dynamic range as classical.
As well, classical music offers a severe test of the tonal accuracy of your system provided you've attended a live performance of classical music and know what those instruments should sound like. The ear is uncannily accurate about picking up the slightest tonal inaccuracies in reproducing even a single instrument. Multiply that by all the instrumental sections in an orchestra and you pose an even greater challenge to your system. And if the system is having to unravel that complex musical tapestry just as the orchestra is playing at maximum volume, you are subjecting your system to a truly monumental test. Acoustical jazz or rock can provide a useful supplemental test of your system's tonal accuracy by providing instruments not found in a classical orchestra but overall a classical orchestra is going to be the severest test of your system's tonal accuracy simply by virtue of presenting the greatest range of instrumental timbres.
While I expect you to be astonished by the sonics on this disk, I also recommend it to you as great music masterfully interpreted by Maestro Mehta and his Merrie LA gentlemen. This is not subtle music. It is big. It is bombastic. Above all, it is exciting and moving. The music is overblown enough already that anything in the way of interpretive flashiness would be overkill. Here, Mehta gives it the straightforward interpretation it needs.
The Music; Track by track
Mars, the Bringer of War
Prepare to be invaded. For that is how you will feel after listening to this track. From the first low ominous rumblings in the brass, accompanied by a nervous rustling in the strings, you will be gripped by an overwhelming sense of impending doom. This is amply borne out by a rousing martial chorus in the full brass topped by a huge wallop from the tympani. If bass be the foundation of the orchestra, then the tympani are its crowning steeple. No orchestral climax would be complete without the emphatic exclamation point of a really well played tympani. Weak tympani mean weak climaxes and all the energy is drained from the music. On this disk, the tympani are full, self-assured, and explode with the requisite
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Whew! After the big fireworks of Mars, one needs the restful interlude of Venus. Mars was a showcase for the brass and percussion. Venus lets the woodwinds and strings strut their soulful stuff - with some lovely, gentle chimes thrown in. I find a healthy bell cut at 2 kHz takes the edge off the violins, which otherwise are wiry sounding. Venus begins on a dolefully mournful note that gradually changes to one of great hope and optimism, which is appropriate I suppose in the aftermath of war.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
The strings and woodwinds continue to do their stuff in Mercury which picks up on the hopeful mood that ended Venus. Mercury is all bubbly and vivacious with merry springtime melodies capped with joyous cymbals. See if your system can accurately reproduce all the overtones of the cymbal so that it sounds correct.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
With Jupiter, it's back to the big bombastic music which began this suite - minus the feeling of impending doom. Jupiter is a big two-fisted fellow who will fill your soundstage with authority and a sweeping, oh so English, melody in the strings. The finish is appropriately large, massive and imposing, giving free rein for the entire orchestra to express themselves to the fullest.
In the days of vinyl, Jupiter would end Side One. And so I was content to leave the Planets Suite for the longest time, feeling content and idly thinking that Side Two couldn't possibly top this. Would you believe it but as jaw-dropping as Side One is, Side Two does indeed outdo Side One.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
It starts out innocently enough with soft gentle notes in the woodwinds. The mood is soon broken by a low growling in the bass. For this track is a showcase for the deep bass which keep intruding on the gentle musings of the woodwinds, gradually becoming more and more insistent, till the bass comes to completely dominate the music. There is a soft interlude followed by the final buildup. The bass now replaced with low pedal notes on the organ - a true test of the low bass capability of your system. Warning: if your speakers are not firmly bolted to the floor they may start skipping around like rabbits in heat. Minimonitors need not apply.
Uranus, the Magician
This track alone is worth the price of admission. If I were to pick one piece of music to try to persuade a hard core metal fan that classical music isn't as dull and boring as he thinks it is, this track would be it.
Heart stopping tympani whacks, deep growls from the tuba and bass trombone, huge dynamic contrasts. This is where this disk comes into its own as a system test. Check out the climax at the 4 minute mark which is followed by a sudden hush. One second there's an earsplitting roar, the next there's near silence. Can your system make the transition?
Neptune, the Mystic
Uranus will leave you limp so the composer wisely decides to bring the audience down before sending them home and ends with some ethereal squawking from a heavenly choir.
This is a two CD album. You are probably familiar with the piece
Also Sprach because it was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Truth be told, I'm not a fan of Richard Strauss. This is a good interpretation of what is, in my opinion, mediocre music. I'm even less a fan of film music, which when divorced from its cinematic context, becomes limp and formless. Wonderful as the movies Close Encounters and Star Wars may be, these suites by John Williams are no exception to the rule and beyond providing some sonic fireworks, really don't have much musical content. Therefore the scores for enjoyment apply only to The Planets. The engineering and sonics are outstanding throughout. I didn't give it a top score in the sonics department because I feel the best of the shaded dogs have a more natural, relaxed feel that is closer to the sound of live performance.
Sound Quality: 90
100 = Furtwängler's wartime Ninth
30 = Offspring
0 = Muzak)
(Sound Quality scale:
100 = Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein
95 = Shaded Dog Pictures or Scheherezade
20 = Da Boss in Staples Center (cavernous concrete pit, home to the Lakers)
0 = Muzak in elevator)
These disks were cleaned with DiscSolution and treated with Esoteric