Gustav Holst - The Planets

For lovers of weighty romantic classical music, like me, a perfect recording of Holst's "The Planets" is the holy grail. I tried countless records of The Planets until I found the one that I am really happy with: Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Any time I get my hands on new hi-fi equipment, this is one of the first records I put on:

By Thü, March 2018

Gustav Holst
The Planets Suite
St. Paul's Suite

Vernon Handley
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Finding a likeable interpretation with perfect intonation, the right tempi and expression is certainly less of a problem. If it were only about these elements, I would be equally appreciative of Adrian Boult with the London Philharmonic, Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic or Charles Dutoit with the Orchestra Montreal, amongst others. Unfortunately, the problem is that the recording quality is less then exciting. The lack of detail, a generally foggy sound and especially the noisy distortion in the high dynamics makes the recordings unworthy of both my time and my ears. Obviously, comparing records by listening to them at the same time is not possible as you know, unlike images which you can view simultaneously. Therefore, it is important to have a sequence that contains both dynamic extremes within only a few seconds of each other. In this way, I can switch quickly between the different versions whilst still having the former sound present in my mind. The beginning of Jupiter is just right for that. Also, if that beginning is played too quickly, respectively the string section patterns become imperceptible so chances are I won't like the interpretation of the rest anyway.

Some of the records I compared:

Uncompressed WAV in original kHz and bit-depth of the records, peak normalized *

One would think that nowadays it has become so easy to compare different recordings online, you don’t have to walk miles to find a record shop that has a suitably large enough collection. Unfortunately, even through an online shop with high resolution audio like HDtracks, the samples you listen to are compressed audio files and on high fidelity equipment, this does make a big difference. It is not possible to compare those samples for audio quality – only after the purchase of the high-res audio files will you know how they really sound. My samples here are uncompressed and in the original frequency and bit depth.

Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra not only deliver a splendid interpretation which I adore, but the detail on this recording is pristine. The instruments remain transparent through all the dynamic ranges and are well located within the stereo stage. But, certainly the most important thing with this impressive playback of The Planets – the fortissimo parts stay clear and precise; they do not turn into a noisy mess like so many other recordings do. In Venus there is some background traffic noise from outside the church, but not to the extent that it really bothers me, but for someone who listens with a subwoofer this may be disturbing. Some people have criticized a very transparent recording such as Handley's Planets as too sharp and harsh. I suppose they have a DAC, amp and speakers combination that is already on the sharp side and when combined, then really may become too extreme. However, I first got my hands on the Handley recordings from iTunes as compressed audio files. Those hold up strongly even against the others with 96kHz/24bit. And when I finally got the uncompressed files they were even better! But, at this point, identifying the right Handley recording had become a task in itself as several versions have been published.

Several versions of the Handley recording are available:

The discography on Wikipedia shows only one entry in 1993 of a Planets recording for Intersound. But then I remembered that somewhere else, a second recording in 2003 was mentioned. So far, I have only been able to compare three of them. I can confirm that the first three in the row above are indeed identical. The first one lists a time index at the backside that differs from the other two, but when I check the audio files, they have in fact the exact same length, only the print is wrong. I also did a precise soundwave comparison and could see they are identical, just shifted 0.04 seconds. As some of the other records shown above have identical time index, I suppose indeed that everything is from the same recording. The second and third one was available to me as a download without further informations, only the first one I got as a physical CD including the booklet. It notes being a DDD / 32 Bit Digital Sound / High Quality Audiofile Edition. But this is totally misleading, because on that CD are just normal audio files with 44.1/16bit. The backside is somewhat more clear about this, writing it was digitally recorded in October 1993 at St. Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London with 20 Bit Digital Recording, Editing and Mastering via 32 Bit DSP. On the inside some more details are mentioned: "Up to 48 microphones ensure that every instrument of the orchestra can be heard throughout the recording, from the subtlest piano passages to the thrilling sound of a crescendo to double forte."

The most interesting of the records shown above would be the greenish one, from the label Membran Music Ltd., which is a SACD that might contain higher resolution audio, at least certainly it is a 5-channel recording. Unfortunately, I was not yet able to get a copy of it. At the few places who do have it, the sales price can be high. I asked HDtracks if they would consider adding it into their collection and I will keep you updated on this.

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May 2018
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Tobias says...

Thank you, this was really a big help. I got the Handley record today and it is simply amazing!

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