I started with The Planets, Andrew Litton & the Bergen Philharmonic relishing the warlike Mars with uncompromising martial steps and threatening atmosphere, Holst’s vivid orchestration (not least the col legno effects) opened up and captured in audiophile-worthy sound-engineering. Overall, Litton has set down a notable Planets: whether the tranquillity of Venus; the quicksilver motion of Mercury (played deftly); the high spirits of Jupiter (its central hymn moulded nobly and attracting persuasive dynamics: try the subito pp at 3:50); the loneliness and angst of growing old as set forth in Saturn; the malevolence of Uranus (with tangible timpani and bass drum strokes); and – finally – the icy remoteness of Neptune, in which the distance and fading of the Ladies of the Bergen Philharmonic Choir & Edvard Grieg Kor is ideally judged.

This eighty-three-minute release also includes Elgar’s numerous Enigmas as are found in his Opus 36 Variations on an Original Theme. Together with Martyn Brabbins’s truly special account for Hyperion, Litton’s is the best Enigma Variations to appear in recent years, music that needs to be delved into (reading the notes and waving a baton isn’t enough for this inexhaustible score), which Litton does without drawing attention to his numerous observations (they are there to be heard though) or his affection for the music. Nimrod? One of the more-spacious views (if not Lenny-like), eloquent and deeply felt, dignified rather than in memoriam; and the ultimate bars of E.D.U. (having depicted his friends, Elgar now does a self-portrait) are uplifting as Litton, heart on sleeve, broadens the music in the most riveting and transcending way. I think an organ (marked ad lib) is present! Whatever, it’s all very opulent, and the essential long-held final chord is in place (some conductors are unacceptably brutal with their cut-off at this point)..

Neither of these works is short of a recording, including ones conducted by their respective composers, and Sir Adrian Boult (who led the premiere) documented The Planets five times, nevertheless Andrew Litton can be recommended as being among the very finest for these ever-popular pieces. BIS-2068 [SACD].

To judge from their Dukas & Roussel coupling, great things are happening with Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and its music director (appointed 2014) Pascal Rophé. Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was one of the most self-critical of composers, leaving but a handful of compositions, barely into double figures, including an opera, a splendid Symphony (it seems he destroyed a Second), an ambitious Piano Sonata, and the for-dance La Péri. And of course The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897, more or less contemporaneous with Enigma Variations), the composer owing to Goethe; in turn Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse would owe to both in Fantasia. Brilliantly brought off by Rophé and his superb orchestra – brimful of description and detail – this is a newly-minted reading of a masterpiece. The earlier Polyeucte (after a tragedy by Corneille), in the mould of a Liszt Symphonic Poem, doesn’t give its secrets up easily, I have found, but Dukas stayed faithful to it, so periodically I like to give it a go; suffice to say that I find more in it from Rophé than previously.

Also included is Albert Roussel’s Ballet-Pantomime, Le Festin de l’Araignée (The Spider’s Banquet, 1913), given complete rather than in Suite form (BIS’s annotation includes a synopsis), music that delights the ear and the senses and which has the uncanny ability, through painstaking and suggestive scoring, to paint a distinct world of insects (including ants, praying mantises and worms, and the lone spider) as well as the flora and fauna they inhabit – humans are excluded – often touchingly and with delicate textures, rather sad by the end though, all handsomely crafted by Rophé and his alert and sensitive musicians, not least in the charming Dance of the Mayfly, and all beautifully recorded. BIS-2432 [SACD].

Andrew Litton records Rachmaninov & Liadov for BIS:


Pascal Rophé conducts the BBCSO:


Rophé conducts Stockhausen:


Martyn Brabbins’s Enigma Variations: