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Conducting Style
The Planets

About Herrmannīs Holst rendition one can read in Steven C. Smithīs biography: "Herrmann had lost his inner sense of timing as a conductor [...] Herrmannīs slow tempi were simply dull".

When I heard this Holst record the first time, I had the feeling that Smith comments about the record were a little bit undifferentiated. Yes, Herrmanns tempi are slower than in other records, but it works!

To be honest, I think it is one of the best records of Holstīs Planets and it has something what other records dont have: a very refreshing personal and individualistic rendition! This are values which are very rare today. Today many conductors and interpreters have no or only little personal style. I think this has to do with the fact, that one can have many records of classical works. So one conducter looks not only to the score, but also to records of other "great" conductors and how they have conducted the work. Pherhaps one conductor has made a good record , and so every other conductor take an example on this. So the renditions loses their individualistic speech. When a conductor donīt care about what others have made with a classical work, his rendition might be different and many people would say about such a record: "The conductor has made mistakes, because his rendition sounds different than the rendition of the famous conductor named..."

To understand Herrmanns view about conducting, it is important to know what he has said about this. In an interview with Zador and Rose, Herrmann said:

"I donīt think a performance on a record is the definitive thing anyhow. I think records are a self-defeating process, because once the piece is performed, no matter how brilliantly, after two or three times youīve had it. (...) I donīt understand Stravinsky who thinks music has got to be exactly one way and no other way."
And in Smithīs biography one can read Herrmann's statement:

"Today we have hundreds of conductors, many of whom are efficient, professional, and accurate so far as their limited imiganation allows, but they can hardly be considered as creative conductors, for in reality they are kapellmeisters, subservient to prevailing musical fads and fashions, and in some cases interested in music only as a means to personal aggrandizement and career. (...) Today the orchestras of the world are beginning to assume monochromatic greyness of sound. It is considered unfashionable for orchestras to have resplendet tonal sound-for climaxes to be brilliant and thrilling-for strings to sing-for woodwinds to be the principal actors on the stage. Today all is resolved into a uniformity and conformity of sound that makes the orchestra perform as though it were an organ with one set of registers pulled out for the entire evening.... ."
When one read this, it should be not surprising that Herrmanns Holst record sounds different. Herrmann didnīt care about, what others have made with Holstīs score. As a very strong personality which he was, he opposed to conduct a work in the fashion others did it. Like in film music he went his own way also as a conductor; one should show Herrmann respect for this. So I donīt think that Herrmann had "lost his inner sense for tempi". I think the slow tempos were intentional. Remember that Herrmann had consulted Imogen Holst (Holstīs daughter) and looked on Holstīs orginal score, before he has made the recording. Remember too, that he was proud of his record-with justification!

As I heard the first movement ("Mars, the bringer of war") I was very pleased about the sound of the music. It hasnīt the swing of other recordings, for that it has elements, which can come out only in slower tempos: An enormous intensification before the orchestra explodes in fortissimo, and a very strong brutality! Herrmann creates a monster with the music. Especially the repeated rhythm sounds very hard and brutal. In his rendition are no dancelike elements. The sound is heavy and curt. So he conducted this movement not simply slow, but rather with great itensity. The second movement ("Venus, the bringer of peace") sounds very beautiful and has a celestial calmness. "Mercury, the winged messenger" has a very great clearity of sound. One can hear each instrument which plays. Steven C. Smith told in his biography, that the orchestra played sloppy; this is a little bit the case in this movement. But for that the different colors , especially the different colors of the woodwinds, can be heard very well. The same clearness and transparency has "Jupiter, the bringer of jollity". In no other Planets record than in Herrmann's one can hear the arpeggios of the woodwinds and horns so good. Itīs the same with the sound of the tambourine. The Andante maestoso theme sounds very well in Herrmanns slower tempo. The sound of the strings is full and broad ("markig", we call it in Germany) and has almost a "Brucknerian" quality. In no other record (and I know many) I have heard this theme with such a greatness, as in Herrmann's rendition! Even the intensification of this theme is awe-inspiring. The coda in this movement Holst called "Lento maestoso" and Herrmann take this literal. The sound of this place with deep brass and woodwind playing combined with glissandos of the high strings, harp and woodwinds, is thrilling. Only in slow tempo one can hear the structure in this place. "Saturn, the bringer of old age" begins harmless and quite, but the aggravation is again enormous. I was very pleased by the sound of the bells which one can hear very audible. Here Herrmanns slow tempo makes the sound of the brass (in the climax) very bombastic.

But Herrmannīs greatest performance comes in the next movement: "Uranus, the magician". I think even the critics of his rendition must concede Herrmann a strong creative power in this movement. It is pherhaps Herrmanns best performance as conductor, and I guess no other conducter has surpassed Herrmannīs rendition in this movement. It is difficult for me to describe Herrmanns interpretation of this movement with words. I have never heard the music in this movement more audacious, sarcastic, strong, sharp, humorous, brutal and colorful as in Herrmannīs record. It is really awe-inspiring and everybody who likes the music in the Uranus-movement must hear it. The last movement ("Neptune, the mystic") is comparable with other recordings of "The planets". The choir sounds in this record similar to the choir in Herrmann's Obsession score.

In summary, one can say that all what Herrmann has done in this work was well- considered, even the slow tempi (and not "simply dull"). And every conductor will agree with me: It is more difficult to conduct a piece slow than fast; so the conductor must take care that he keeps the tempo. It is easier to hide mistakes with fast tempos and to make impression with fast tempos (even when music will be played sloppy). When one take the music slow, for that he must manage musical values, and I feel this is the case in Herrmanns rendition. Beside that, a conductor must have nerves to take music slow.

At the end I will make a comparision with an other great conductor. It is Sergiu Celibidache. Like Herrmann he was also a beliver in expansive tempi and I think he has the same attitude about conducting like Herrmann. In the interview with Zador and Rose, Herrmann told: "...music is a fluid art; itīs a living art. And living art means that each time itīs played itīs reborn". Celibidache used almost the same words, and made never a record for that. Nevertheless EMI has released live recordings after Celibidaches death, and everyone can hear his rendition. Of course he was a professional conducter with long experiences, but when I heard his renditions the first time, I was amazed about the similarities to Herrmanns conducting style. I guess everybody who likes the conducting of Herrmann, will be pleased about Celibidaches records. I can recommend his records very high, especially the Bruckner symphonies (I like very much Celibidaches rendition of the seventh, eight and ninth symphony), Bartokīs Concerto for orchestra, Mussorgskyīs Pictures at an exhibition and his Wagner renditions. Like Herrmann, Celibidache was an individualist too; not only as musician but even as a human being. He had no good words for his famous colleagues and his comments about other popular musicians were often very sharp and curt. He was a conductor with a very high knowledge, but due to his uncomfortable personality he conducted rather unknown orchestras. The break with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra hurted him for the rest of his life. But now his records get high prices. His renditions are very individualistic and refreshing different to the usual renditions of the same works. He created an individualistic sound from each orchestra which he had conducted and his tempos were often unusual slow (some have said lethartic). But differently than Herrmann, Celibidache was very eloquent, so he could defense his slow tempos. The following is a quotation from his son about his tempis. I think this attitude about the tempo is similar to Herrmann's attitude:

"According to my father, the tempo of a specific piece is not given by a metronome number written in the score but depends much rather on other criteria in the score and those that make the acoustic of a hall. This tempo then fluctuates according to the complexity of the notes and their epiphenomena (the sounds which appear from the division of the main note after it is played). In other words, and in simple terms, more notes need more time to develop and return (to the ear). The richer the music, therefor, the slower the tempo."
I hope we all can hear Herrmann's The Planets on CD someday.

Copyright © 2000 by Markus Metzler / The Bernard Herrmann Society.
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International Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)