Finding a favourite classical recording is an arduous, reptetive, divisive, and thoroughly pretentious pastime, but it can be a wonderful journey. It’s not just about sound quality. You learn to understand the influence a conductor has on the interpretation, you discover which orchestras shouldn’t be allowed to make records, and you hear some really wonderful music along the way.

In 2011 some friends and I decided we were really into Holst’s The Planets, and so I took it upon myself to find the best recording to share around. Eventually I settled on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley, but I also discovered something so fantastically esoteric I couldn’t pass it by – the controversial Phase 4 recording of The Planets conducted by none other than Bernard Herrmann! You may recall Bernard Herrmann from this piece of music:

Decca’s Phase 4 label ran through the 1960s and 1970s, featuring recordings which pushed the concept of stereo to its limit. It used clever microphone placement and early mixing desks to distribute the sounds across the channels, often gimmickly bouncing from left to right. One of the great things about it is that, used effectively, it can give the impression of being right in the studio with the recording artist, locating the listener right in the centre of proceedings. I found this one on CD, released in Australia on Decca’s budget Eloquence label – a CD which now has a cult following because of the difficulty obtaining Hermann’s recording.

I love Phase 4 album art. Considering I wasn’t even thought of when they were on first release, the logo is iconic to me.

Why is it a contender?: The engineers worked wonders on this particular recording, and it really brings out the best in Hermann’s idiosyncratic interpretation. I put it on in the car the other day and was just blown away.

What’s good?:

  • “Mars” is a good 1-2 minutes slower than most other recordings, which really emphasises the music as the accompaniment of a hulking, leviathan war machine.
  • “Venus” really has time to breathe; this is a piece of music about a warm, inviting love goddess, and so it needs to be filled with romance and yearning. Herrmann nails it. Which is perhaps an unfortunate choice of expression given the context but I’m sticking with it.
  • The hairs on my neck stood on end during “Neptune” – Bernard Herrmann owns this final part of the suite as though it were one of his own works. It is creepy, mysterious, and so wonderfully ethereal, exactly as “Neptune” should be.
  • The sound quality and stereo work – except for some tape hiss during the quietest parts of the suite, the transfer to CD is impeccable. I’m blessed with a better than average stock sound system in what is a very average car, and the recording takes full advantage of it. No scratchiness in the top dynamics, and smooth and round in the bottom. As for the stereo, it locates you probably right in front of the woodwinds in the symphony orchestra, with strings either side and the conductor behind. You hear a lot more minor detail than is typical in The Planets; this isn’t for everyone but I think it’s welcome.

What’s bad?:

  • “Uranus”, and “Saturn” – zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Give me The Planets without those two and I’ll give you the perfect recording. Which I of course probably shouldn’t hold against Bernard Herrmann.
  • Some of the articulation is a little sloppy, and the clarinets are always just a little bit too keen to start playing. On a normal recording they could probably get away with it, but because the mics are up close and personal in Phase 4 recordings, there’s no hiding.
  • “Jupiter” – 2/3 of this I had a smile on my face, as you should when this piece plays because it is so jolly and upbeat. But the centre third, the hymn ‘I Vow To Thee, My Country’ is so appallingly slow it’s like a hideous funeral dirge. I fast forward through it every time. By the final chorus you wonder whether the whole thing is just going to grind to a halt! This tends to be the most commonly cited complaint about the interpretation.

Is it the perfect recording?: No. I can’t get past the issues with tempo through “Jupiter”, and in such a clear recording the orchestra needs to be tighter than it is. But it’s definitely enjoyably Herrmann, and worth it for “Neptune” alone.

If you’d like to listen to the recording, I’d advise buying the CD. Start here.

Next time, we’ll examine what to look for when hunting the emperor of recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto.