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Conducting The Planets

As most of his music's lovers know, what Herrmann always wanted to be was not a great composer, but a renowned orchestra conductor. All his life he was fascinated by the art of conducting, and he practised it assiduity throughout his career. Actually, though he's currently most known for his contribution to film music, he always alternated composing and conducting, both in symphonic orchestras and in small ensembles. With them he played an astonishing wide repertoire, as we can see on this web site. He was, therefore, a professional conductor, not a composer who conducted, like most of his colleague film composers.

Unfortunately, he never reached his aim. We may think that his rough nature wasn't favourable - his ridiculous friction with George Solti for a matter of tempi in a Schumann symphony, narrated by Steven C. Smith in his great book, is very illustrative. Likewise, his integrity and his systematic renounce to adulation were one of the main reasons that kept him away from the podium of many of the great orchestras. But we have thought sometimes that the real reason might have been a very simple one - maybe Herrmann wasn't a really fine conductor of great classics.

We can't verify if this was true in most of his artistic career, due to the lack of commercial recordings: notwithstanding many of his performances were broadcast, this material, if still exits, haven't yet been brought to light. So we have to manage with the recordings he made between 1966 and 1975 for Pye, Decca, Unicorn and Lyrita. We can compare the renditions of his own music with the original soundtracks, and the works of other composers with recordings by other conductors. This way we will be able to appraise the directorial personality of the late Bernard Herrmann. That is what we are going to try in a series or articles on this site.

The British LP (Decca Records)
In this first article we are going to centre ourselves in a world-famous work with infinitude of recordings by most diverse orchestras and batons: The Planets, by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Finished in 1916, it is a wide symphonic poem for large orchestra and female choir for which its author got his inspiration in the astrological qualities of each one of the planets (save Pluto, still undiscovered) to develop a long orchestral suite in seven parts mixing traditional Britannic spirit, orchestral textures nearing impressionism and savage rhythms like in The Rite of Spring. The result was an unprecedented work of great richness in melodies and orchestration, indebted with many other musicians, that without being a masterpiece shows moments of fine inspiration.

It isn't difficult to imagine the motives that led Herrmann to get interest in this work: as Steven C. Smith affirms in his book, "it was perhaps the single work to which Herrmann was most indebted as a composer". He also tells us that he consulted the original score through the composer's daughter, Imogen Holst - it shows us the seriousness and professionalism that had our artist approaching his admired score.

The recording sessions took place between 23 and 25 February 1970 at London's Kingsway Hall, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. The sessions, as Smith tells us, were very problematic. Even during the rehearsals, in the climax of Mars the ceiling collapsed in plaster lumps around the organ, so his parts had to be later recorded elsewhere. The recording technique was the splendid (though not very realistic) Decca Phase 4. Unfortunately, the British label still hasn't transferred to compact disc, unlike other recordings in the series, his film music LPs among them.

The album sold well, despite the fact that the recording received all kind of reviews, most of them not very good. Even Smith relates that when Herrmann required it in a record shop, they told him that they didn't carry it because they didn't recommended it". Which are the reasons of that failure? Is it really a faulty interpretation?

For those who are accustomed to the standard renditions, Herrmann's will be odd, bizarre, as a result of a very strong personality. This is without any doubt the main motive of displeasure of the listener. This personality reveals itself, in terms of sounds, in very slow tempi and a peculiar treatment of timbres, especially woodwinds. Regarding the concept of the work, it is an essentially dark and pessimist vision. Lyricism, when it exits, is so intense as restrained and aching. Violence, internal more than external. And humour, black intense. Like in Dimitri Shostakovich's music, black humour is the only way to escape from vital anguish. It isn't casual that Herrmann, in his recording of a suite of the music that the sovietic composer wrote for Hamlet, was able to discover the real face of the work, which in those times, mid seventies, only a few conductors managed, like Rostropovich or André Previn.

The US LP (London Records)
In the first bars of Mars, the Bringer of War, composed a few months before the outbreak of World War One, we become aware of the slowness that is going to be determinant in this rendering. Slowness, but not softness, as it has been said. Usually, fast tempi help to build tension. That is the case, for example, of Sir George Solti's rendition with the same orchestra also recorded by Decca in 1978: 6'39 minutes. The always-admirable vigour of the Hungarian maestro achieves a really brilliant performance from the London Philharmonic, far superior that of Herrmann. But anguish is even more implacable, tension stronger, with Herbert von Karajan and Sir Colin Davis, both of them with Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 1980 and Phillips 1989, respectively). The first one takes 7'21. The British conductor, just 7'00. Herrmann expands to 8'29: a record. In conclusion, the key is not in tempi, but in baton technique.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace, isn't a really fortunate piece, but Herrmann draws out large doses of lyricism, so much that the conductor make his best in it. Mercury, the Winged Messenger, is an imaginative scherzo that suggests flying. Herrmann's tempi allow a great clarity in the orchestration, but don't contribute to produce the feeling of velocity. But it is fairly preferable to Holst's own recording, madly fast and without much inspiration.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is, without any doubt, the best known piece in the suite, but maybe also the less achieved one: there is an excess of British pomp. Herrmann's rendition just fails emphasising this ingredient. He tries to relish the central melody to the limit, but it sounds bloated and it makes even more incoherent the global structure of the piece.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, is the greatest and most personal piece of the score. A sinister beginning, expressing dragging and lack of strengths of the late days, gives way to a painful lyrical theme, some kind of procession, expressing the nostalgia for the past. This leads to a horrific climax of terror before death. Herrmann builds an impressive atmosphere of mystery, but in the stronger moments isn't terrific enough, maybe due to the orchestra, I mean, his incapacity to get the best from it. We have to listen to Karajan or Colin Davis to feel real anguish.

Were Herrmann feels he more comfortable is in Uranus, the Magician. This music is a parody of Paul Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, a piece that was also recorded by Herrmann for Decca. It has been told that what Holst intended to draw is human being that, seeming on the point of fulfilment, suddenly falls in most isolated misery. Some conductors, like Solti or Colin Davis, approach this piece from sarcastic joy and joke. With them Uranus sounds brilliant and easy. But Herrmann emphasises its darker, even macabre, moods. There is humor, of course, but it is black. The interest in low woodwinds is pure Herrmann, bringing to mind his most renowned sarcastic scores, like The Trouble with Harry - really meaningful is the similarity of the first four notes of this score with those who open Uranus. Maybe the rubato in the climax is a little excessive and partially lose the built tension, but there is no rude violence, unlike in Lorin Maazel's interpretation.

In Neptune, the Mystic, our artist makes a very orthodox rendition, hardly personal, and not particularly slow - 7'58, between Colin Davis (6'46) and Karajan (8'47), and close to Solti (7'56). The ethereal character that the score demands is fully fulfilled.

In conclusion, it is a very personal rendition, really good in those days. Afterwards there have been recorded fairly better interpretations in technical aspects, but Herrmann's still reveals aspects that others even have not intuited. We hope soon Decca transfer it to compact disc so all of us can enjoy it with better sound quality.

Copyright © 1999 by Fernando López Vargas-Machuca / The Bernard Herrmann Society.
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www.bernardherrmann.org / The Bernard Herrmann Society
International Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)