Is it chance or serendipity that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic timed their new recording of Holst's The Planets
to coincide with the current astronomical upheaval? Though Holst learned of the discovery of Pluto four years before he died, it probably did not occur to him to add another movement, especially since the work's last section, "Neptune, the Mystic," ends in an other-worldly, ethereal fade-out, enhanced by an off-stage wordless women's chorus. He would have been surprised by the latest development in Pluto's status, but undoubtedly pleased that his ultimately incomplete Suite-- which had become more popular than he had expected or thought it deserved--had inspired another British composer, Colin Matthews, to write a successful companion piece, "Pluto, the Renewer," in 2000. Moreover, the Berlin Philharmonic added to Holst's galaxy by commissioning four composers to write a movement each for a Suite called "Asteroids." This is its premiere recording.
The idea of "music of the spheres" goes back to antiquity; perhaps the most famous example of its influence is the slow movement of Beethoven's second "Rasumovsky" String Quartet. Holst gives each of his planets its mythological characteristics: "Mars" is forcefully war-like, "Venus" melodiously peaceful; "Mercury" is a fleet, skittish Scherzo, "Jupiter" rambunctious but suddenly songful. "Saturn" is a soft, solemn march, and "Uranus" murmurs and glitters. The work's most striking element is the scoring. A huge orchestra produces enormous contrasts (underlined by the recording), incredibly colorful sound effects and lush, dense, sonorities, with a lot of melodic doubling and undulating accompanying figures. The sound-world of the "Asteroids" is also based on instrumental colors and effects: whispers, shimmers, crashes and extreme registers. All this is just right for this virtuoso orchestra. Edith Eisler