I received a pleasant surprise at the office the other day. A new recording of Holst’s The Planets by the Toronto Symphony and its Music Director, Peter Oundjian. The release is on the new TSO Live, the Toronto Symphony’s in house label. The London Symphony Orchestra began this audio self publication quite some time ago with its very successful LSO Live recordings. Orchestras have followed the model including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on its equally successful ReSound label, and on video with the fantastic Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall.
The LSO Live productions have the same difficulty as this successful new Toronto release. The recordings are in mediocre halls. The LSO engineers always seem to ‘add’ some bloom from the concrete slab that is the Barbican, making the recordings sound very good. The TSO outsourced the recording to Gary Gray, ex of Manta Sound in Toronto. Gray captures the excellent performance from Roy Thomson Hall with clarity if not warmth. That said, I was very pleasantly surprised by the glow around the orchestra. Much of the credit must go to the players who produce some lovely sounds in what I know is a difficult acoustic for them.
From what I’ve heard in live performances, Conductor Peter Oundjian has the TSO sounding very fine (and even better than heard on the orchestra’s other recording of The Planets with Andrew Davis on EMI). He expects rhythmic precision and incision. And he gets it. The soloists of the orchestra, too, are in fine fettle. The audition process has delivered some excellent strings, a superb Principal Trumpet in Andrew McCandless (incandescent in this recording), Jeffrey Beecher on Principal Bass (following on from the world class Joel Quarrington - not an easy job!), and a slew of other young Turks eager to strut their stuff. Guesting on Concertmaster for the many lovely vioin solos is Frank Huang, top fiddler in the Houston Symphony. He’s an admirable guest.
Oundjian’s interpretation is straightforward. Nothing for effect to make a musical ’statement’. He lets Holst’s magnificent scoring speak for itself. Tempos are appropriate for warmongering Mars, peaceful Venus (great horn playing from Neil Deland, here), speedy Mercury and elderly Saturn. The women of the Elmer Iseler Singers (for the non Canadian readers, Iseler was a legendary vocal director here in Toronto for many years) sing sensuously and, more importantly, accurately, with a really beautiful fadeout as Neptune disappears into eternity.
A very good, mid price recommendation, then. Not supplanting the greats — Karajan/VPO/Decca, Boult/LPO/EMI and the King, Montreal/Dutoit/London — but worthy of your time and money.
Playing time: 51:20