Visually Stunning Accompaniment to Holst's 'The Planets'
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 04/15/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After viewing many early DVDs of classical music that didn't show the performers but rather featured generally insipid pastoral or other picturesque scenes that moved slowly across one's screen and bored one to tears, I was prepared to dislike this new DVD that 'illustrates' a performance of Gustav Holst's popular orchestral suite, 'The Planets.' I was extremely surprised and pleased, then, that during this hour-long DVD I never once lost interest in the visuals. My interest, as anyone who has read my other Amazon reviews knows, is classical music, and generally I am more fascinated by the performance in the DVD than by the visuals. This time, though, the main purpose is the visuals and the production's director, Rhodri Huw, succeeded handsomely in putting together an extraordinarily varied filmic collage that aptly fits the tempo and tone of the music.
As you know, Holst's suite features a tone poem for each of the solar system's planets known when he wrote it in 1918. They appear in 'The Planets' in this order: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic. Notice that Earth is not included, nor is Pluto, which was not discovered until 12 years after Holst wrote the suite. In this performance by David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales a newly written (2000) section, 'Pluto, the Renewer,' written by English composer Colin Matthews, is included as the last movement.
The musical performance is unexceptionable. Atherton is a fine conductor and his orchestral responds alertly and subtly to his direction. We rarely actually see the orchestra in this production and when we do they are generally lit dramatically; mostly we get close-ups of instrumentalists. But by far the preponderant visuals are unendingly fascinating snippets from all over the world, computer-generated graphics, animatronics all mixed and matched in fascinating combinations. There is no real effort to illustrate the planets themselves--how could one, actually, illustrate the planets?--but since Holst appended subtitles for each planet, that is the focus. For instance, for 'Mars, Bringer of War,' we get quick montages of armaments being manufactured, military aircraft, rocket launchers and, towards the end, the faces of victims of war. 'Venus, the Bringer of Peace,' for instance, is illustrated by very quiescent scenes, generally of isolated parts of the earth (is there a message here that the only peaceful places are those barely touched by the hand of man?). 'Mercury, the Winged Messenger,' itself a quirky scherzo, is illustrated almost exclusively by computer-generated images that match the mercurial nature of the music. 'Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,' includes many different scenes of celebration, laughter, and frolic, including some unforgettable scenes from one iteration of the now-famous 'Burning Man' art festival that occurs yearly in the Nevada desert. 'Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,' seems to follow the growth and development of a boy through childhood, young adulthood, maturity, and senescence. The scenes used to illustrate it are actually quite touching. And so on. I can only reiterate that Huw has chosen extremely apt images, tends not to intercut too quickly or linger too long on each, and he clearly has the tempo and rhythm of the music in mind although there is not a feeling that he slavishly follows these in his filmic rhythms. He must have reviewed literally miles of film to find the scenes he includes.
Matthews 'Pluto', which I'd never heard before, is only slightly more advanced in idiom that Holst's music and it really does sound of a piece with the rest of the suite. He has done a nice job. He recognized that Pluto is the farthest planet from the sun and one hears echoes of Vaughan Williams's icy Antarctica in his orchestration.
All in all, this is a very successful effort and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to find that graphic illustration of music in a DVD is a viable artistic possibility.