Universe of Sound: The Planets (Blu-ray)


Also available on DVD

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in a unique performance of Holst’s The Planets Suite, captured in High Definition by 37 cameras. This immersive experience takes the viewer to the heart of the Philharmonia as they perform this well-loved piece, using cameras placed in a multitude of positions and angles to create an extraordinary glimpse of the orchestra at work from within. As well as Holst’s The Planets, the filmed performance also includes a new commission by UK composer Joby Talbot, Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity.

Additional features include a ‘Making of’ documentary feature, listening guide films for each planet, audio commentaries from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and principal players of the Philharmonia, and (for Blu-ray only) a bonus view option that allows a simultaneous view of the conductor and orchestra in action.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is committed to bringing classical music to new audiences in creative and exciting ways, and to this end has become a technological trailblazer in its adoption and adaptation of new technology. In 2010 the Re-Rite project allowed members of the public to experience Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time from within the orchestra through audio/visual projections. Their ‘Universe of Sound’ project from which this release stems debuted at the Science Museum in London last year, and is set to tour the country in new installations during 2013.


What people are saying

"A deal of information is contained here and the release would be invaluable to younger students of the score or those planning to conduct it for the first time … Filming and recording of the performance are both state-of-the-art." Gramophone, March 2013  

"Personally I can admit that the work was opened to me in a totally new telescopic perspective after browsing through the DVD with all its extra contents" YLE (Finnish Broadcasting Company, Radio Channel 1), May 2013

"By far the most interesting feature is where five of the orchestra’s players talk through this impressively played performance: all of them are meanwhile shown together in split-screen, their comments subtitled and colour-coded so you easily know which is which. Their voice-overs are a mine of information, both intriguing and entertaining, about what’s involved from their angle." Sinfini Music 

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen

BRD25 – Region Free

DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 
Dolby Digital 5.1 
Stereo PCM

Release date:11th Mar 2013
Order code:SIGBRD001
Barcode: 635212000106

July 2013

An intensely dramatic performance of Holst’s The Planets by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, complemented ideally by Joby Talbot’s Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity, features on a technically ground-breaking disc made using no fewer than 37 cameras. For anyone who has never played in a symphony orchestra the special access provided by the various camera angles among, above and around the players is especially involving. In addition to the LPCM stereo, Dolby Digital and DTS Digital surround soundtracks, there are also two commentaries, one by Salonen, another featuring several principal players in the orchestra. First-rate picture quality (filmed against blacks, the heightened contrasts between dark and light are especially telling) and sound enhances the viewer’s enjoyment still further.  

International Record Review

June 2013

BBC Radio 3 CD Review – Disc of the Week

“You will never have seen an orchestra in such intimate detail unless you play in one…”

“DVD extras are good as well especially a commentary from some of the principals talking to each other… really illuminating…”

“(The) sound (is) almost as intimate as the images.” “It ends up being an instructive interaction with a fine orchestra in The Planets plus Joby Talbot’s entertaining coda Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity …” 

“It’s the most intimate guide to the workings of the symphony orchestra that I’ve seen and the extras give another layer of information.”

BBC Radio 3, CD Review – Andrew McGregor

July 2013

A documentary which comes as part of this issue explains the raison d’être behind the project. It was designed not just as a performance of Holst’s suite but as an interactive experience at the London Science Museum where participants could act as conductor, player or even composer as part of an educative project. Obviously with a DVD issue the interactive part of the whole is severely curtailed, but the package has to be considered as a whole rather than as a set of independent parts. Nevertheless it may be useful to consider first the performance, then the video production and finally the educative parts in isolation from each other.   

Last year I reviewed a recording of The Planets by this same orchestra under William Boughton on the Nimbus label. In that article I pointed out a considerable number of pitfalls that await the unwary, some of them of the composer’s own creation. One has to say that nearly all of these are avoided here, although I doubt that any performance could make Holst’s marked alternations between two and three beats to the bar in the central section of Mercury as audible as the composer clearly wished. Elsewhere problems of balance created by Holst are resolved by close microphone positioning (necessary for video purposes) and some clearly artificial boosting of individual players such as the euphonium in Mars. The only drawback to this is the very closely observed violin sound; the players themselves can withstand this level of intense scrutiny, but the harp harmonics at the end of Uranus are covered by the string pianissimo in a way that simply does not happen in live performances. Otherwise Esa-Pekka Salonen, who clearly loves the work, gives a splendid reading with perhaps more fire than relaxation. 

The video presentation eschews any attempt at showing us the planets themselves – perhaps an odd omission for a project with which the Science Museum was involved, but then Holst was writing about the planets as astrological symbols and not astronomical bodies. What we get is a straightforward television presentation of the orchestra playing the score, but the vaunted use of 37 cameras means that we can get a much more detailed view of individual players than one gets in the usual concert broadcasts as seen on video and television. There is a price to be paid for this – in order for the cameras to be able to manoeuvre, there were consequent difficulties for the players in co-ordination which necessitated multiple takes and, as already observed, the resulting balance is somewhat artificial. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the organ – spliced in afterwards from a completely different venue – is seen on screen, while the singers, similarly added after the event by multi-tracking, are never seen at all. 

This close observation of the orchestra by the cameras is inevitable given the educational and didactic purpose which the video also seeks to fulfil. One can also watch the performance with commentaries by the conductor – although I was unable to access this facility on any of the three players with which I tried – and members of the orchestra. The latter demonstrate particular problems in the score insofar as their own parts are concerned while also ranging quite widely over discussions concerning emotion in music and its effect on players. There’s also a delightfully diverting commentary concerning Mantovani of all people. These insights would be particularly valuable not only to newcomers to the score – who can also access spoken introductions to each movement – but also to professionals. I certainly discovered some aspects of the score of which I was previously unaware, and all composers should take note of the continual complaints of the players over unhelpfully placed page turns in orchestral parts. One point of controversy here: on several occasions the players remark upon the fact that they alter Holst’s written score in order to take advantage of improvements in technique and instruments since his day. I don’t imagine the composer would have objected to this. I had certainly never noticed the minor adjustments involved. That said, how does this square with the principle of ‘faithfulness to the composer’s intentions’ upon which we are always being lectured when Beethoven, for example, is involved? 

In order to extend this educational role to the process of composition, the orchestra commissioned a new piece by Joby Talbot to round off the suite. This is not a new idea. Colin Matthews produced a movement some years ago called Pluto, the renewer just in time for Pluto to be robbed of its planetary status. He made the unwise decision to splice this movement into the choral ‘fade’ which terminates the suite in its original form – and incidentally spoil one of Holst’s most novel innovations in the score. Here unfortunately Joby Talbot in his movement Worlds, stars, systems, infinity has made exactly the same miscalculation – the music for the final movement begins before Holst’s score has really ended. This means that listeners must perforce have this additional movement as well. Talbot has great fun with Holst’s massive orchestra, to which he adds further instruments (meditation bowls, a massive rack of crotales) and instrumental effects (timpani glissandos, stopped horns and various modern trumpets mutes) to conjure up a grandly impressive movement. Then again, it doesn’t really have much to do with Holst – despite some quotations from Holst’s textures which end the piece with its depiction of infinity. Also his use of the offstage chorus as a full element in the orchestral texture goes against Holst’s deliberate distancing of the singers from the orchestra. 

In an accompanying documentary we are told that patrons at the Science Museum were able to interact with the compositional process, transferring passages from one group of instruments to another to compare the effect. This was doubtless valuable in that context but for video presentation it might have been better to separate the Talbot movement off to a completely independent track. 

There are not many musical works that could stand up to this degree of close scrutiny, but fortunately Holst’s Planets is one of them. Ivan Hewett for the Daily Telegraph reviewed the original exhibition at the Science Museum, and observed that “For newcomers to the orchestra, this installation certainly gives a taste of its amazing richness. But it could be useful to music-students too, keen to get some tips on how to balance winds against brass.” I am sure he is right about this, not having seen the ‘installation’ myself – but I note from the Philharmonia’s website that they intend to tour the exhibition to Canterbury and Birmingham during 2013 before it is “developed for international touring”. I would certainly, on the basis of my experience of this DVD, make an effort to catch it. 

Musicweb International, Paul Corfield Godfrey

June 2013

This is a curious off-shoot from a project exhibited last year at the Science Museum in London, which, through Holst’s The Planets, offered visitors an interactive experience of a symphony orchestra. For this multimedia presentation, the Philharmonia players were seated in an unusual arrangement, each section (flutes, oboes, clarinets etc.) screened from another with black curtains as they were individually filmed. Edited from these multiple videos, the DVD’s main feature works effectively enough when there are instrumental solos to focus on, but as the videos were not made with a single feature in mind, the visual ‘framing’ of players is sometimes less than ideal. Given the circumstances of its filming, the actual performance conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen is effective, if not particularly individual.

Purists may object to ‘Neptune’ not fading out but seguing into a very Hollywood-esque addition by Joby Talbot. There’s ample compensation, though, in the extras, including a ‘making of’ documentary and a ‘Commentary with Principal Players’, in which five Philharmonia musicians discuss the practicalities of playing The Planets while a multi-screen presentation shows them in action during the work’s performance. We learn, for instance, that the principle horn player has her colleagues cover (‘buffer’) for her in the physically demanding passagework of ‘Mars’ before her crucial horn solo in ‘Venus’. The commentary also highlights how orchestral players usually rely on visual cues from one another, as much as from the conductor, which makes this performance, screened off as they were, all the more remarkable.

BBC Music Magazine, Daniel Jaffe

June 2013

If you follow my example and play the performance of The Planets straightaway you may wonder what all the fuss is about and why this DVD carries the title ‘Universe of Sound’ since what you will see is a straightforward studio performance of Holst’s music, albeit one filmed from many angles. My strong advice would be to watch the ‘Making of’ feature first.

 From this short and interesting film you will learn that the performance is the musical core of a joint venture between The Philharmonia and the Science Museum in London. The venture was part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, linked to the London Olympics. In essence the idea was to create an interactive sound and vision installation, allowing visitors to see on film a full symphony orchestra playing Holst’s great orchestral score. By using multi-screen techniques the film makers intended that viewers could get ‘up close and personal’ with conductor and orchestra, almost viewing the performance from the inside. More information about the project can be found on the Universe of Sound website, where the documentary film can also be viewed.

No fewer than 37 cameras were used to film the performance and there’s no doubt that the makers have managed to convey an excellent and often striking impression of the performance as it unfolds. The only mild criticism I have is that the camera-work is a bit ‘busy’ in that they never seem to rest on a player or group of players for more than a few seconds. However, the director’s shot selection is intelligent; the player or players in shot at any one time are relevant to what we’re hearing. I have to say this struck me as a most imaginative example of ‘outreach’ to a wider audience.

As for the performance itself, it’s a good one, including a powerful account of ‘Mars’ and a reading of ‘Venus’ that brings out all the subtle pastel shadings. Salonen keeps the tempo rock-steady in ‘Mercury’; you may feel that the speed is just a fraction too steady but, by compensation, the transparent, light textures are realised clearly. The opening of ‘Saturn’ is somewhat forbidding. For my taste Salonen is just a little brisk in the central processional but there’s no doubt that the great climax is towering. ‘Uranus’ is exciting and the mysterious washes of sound in ‘Neptune’ are well done. The female chorus was separately recorded in a London church; their contribution is well integrated. The organ was also recorded separately – in Symphony Hall, Birmingham – but, to be honest, I didn’t think that the organ part really registered very strongly.

It seems to have become fashionable in recent years to get composers to write pieces to follow ‘Neptune’. Joby Talbot is the latest. His Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity – the title is, apparently, a quotation from Byron – follows ‘Neptune’ without a break, the ladies chorus forming the bridge, as it were. It’s scored for similar forces to the Holst – except that, perhaps predictably, the percussion section is significantly expanded. The piece lasts about seven minutes, making a lot of play with restless, energetic rhythms. It’s inoffensive enough but, to me, it didn’t add anything to Holst’s score and I wouldn’t count it a great loss if I didn’t hear it again. Perhaps it makes more effect as part of the Universe of Sound installation.

The DVD also features player commentaries on each movement of the Holst. I was surprised how extensive these commentaries are. In essence five Philharmonia players are heard in conversation throughout each of the seven complete movements. Their conversation is interesting but it’s rather a long feature. There’s also a separate feature which gives a listener’s guide to each movement.

For someone who doesn’t know The Planets or who is interested in a close-up view of the modern symphony orchestra in action this is a useful package. The Universe of Sound installation can be experienced in Birmingham between 25 May and 16 June.

Musicweb International, John Quinn

May 2013

‘It’s breath-taking, neck-hair-raising stuff,’ writes Richard Slaney – Philharmonia head of digital, and creative director of the Universe of Sound concept – about the opening bars of Mars in Holst’s immortal symphonic suite. ‘Now imagine being able to walk through the orchestra as this is all going on.’

So there are 37 cameras placed above, around, and in some cases even on the players or their instruments, in ‘what we believe is the largest ever classical music film shoot’, part of a project involving an interactive installation in London’s Science Museum. While the jump-cut editing is relentlessly restless, the camera angles themselves are no more quirky or obtrusive than in your average orchestral DVD.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tempi are quick-ish, but not over-contentiously so (although the slow power of Saturn does sound short-changed). There’s also an unremarkable extra movement commissioned from Joby Talbot, growing out of Neptune’s final bars, therefore nullifying one of music’s most haunting and beautiful endings (what’s the point?).

By far the most interesting feature is where five of the orchestra’s players talk through this impressively played performance: all of them are meanwhile shown together in split-screen, their comments subtitled and colour-coded so you easily know which is which. Their voice-overs are a mine of information, both intriguing and entertaining, about what’s involved from their angle – for instance how something sounding simple enough, like the solo horn’s unaccompanied opening in Venus, is made much more demanding by the degree of exposure. For this reason especially, well worth a look.

Sinfini Music, Malcolm Hayes

March 2013
Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of Holst’s Planets Suite, captured in high definition by 37 cameras. The viewer is taken to the heart of the Philharmonia in a stunning immersive  experience. The performance also includes World, Stars, Systems, Infinity by UK composer Joby Talbot. 


Northern Echo, Gavin Engelbrecht

March 2013

Philharmonia’s landmark Planets project on screen

Conceived in conjunction with a summer 2012 installation at London’s Science Museum, the Philharmonia’s ‘Universe of Sound: Holst The Planets’ is now available as a Blu-ray Disc of information and commentary surrounding a studio performance of the work filmed at Watford’s Colosseum. Overlaying the performance can be commentaries by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Richard Slaney or by principal members of the orchestra. Appendices include analysis of each movement, with music score examples, by the Philharmonia’s Paul Richmond; an interview with composer Joby Talbot, who wrote a companion sequel to The Planets called Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity; and some items about the London exhibition.

The centrepiece of all this is a tautly rehearsed, unromantic, ‘straight’ performance of the piece under Salonen which will appeal to those who like Holst’s own ‘original’ recordings – especially the sparky acoustic one – more than less ‘modern’ readings under Boult, Sargent and A and C Davis. Salonen manages to locate the work comfortably next to its European contemporaries (his voiceovers draw parallels with Sibelius’s Kullervo and Finlandia) without the interventionist stylistic colouring of the Karajan extravaganzas or the Hollywood driving of some of the American readings. Do choose the option during ‘Mars’ of keeping Salonen’s photo up in the left hand corner together with his commentary on how to beat what he thinks may be the longest symphonic movement in 5/4.

A deal of information is contained here and the release would be invaluable to younger students of the score or those planning to conduct it for the first time. The commentary from the orchestra members could have been more tightly sifted. Real gems of information about the piece and playing it as an ensemble fly by quickly and get lost in a sea of essentially once-only anecdotage. Filming and recording of the performance are both state-of-the-art.

Gramophone, Mike Ashman