The Fifth Element #88

It's time for another holiday gift list:

12. Holst: The Planets (24/96 download): $18
The Planets is the definitional crowd-pleasing orchestral warhorse—there are more than 40 recordings of it currently available in a dizzying array of over 90 couplings, sets, and formats. Add versions on synthesizer, pipe organ, brass ensemble, et al, and the total exceeds 100. There are good reasons for the work's enduring popularity: inspired orchestration, brief movements alternating between drama and repose, and memorable, rollicking big tunes.

The audiophile-approved recordings of The Planets seem to begin and end with Boult/LPO, Mehta/LAPO, and Previn/RPO, which to me seems a shame. My off-the-radar, sleeper pick is William Steinberg's 1970 recording with the Boston Symphony. The BSO was still basking in the glow of its golden era; the tempos are brisk, the ensemble tight, and the sound is among the best ever recorded in Symphony Hall. Single tracks aren't individually available, but the 24/96 download of the entire album also includes a very energetic and cohesive recording by the same forces of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, and is reasonably priced. (24/96 downloads from in WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC; Deutsche Grammophon)

If you want a modern Planets recording that moves right along as this one does, the only option seems to be Vladimir Jurowski/LPO's live CD from 2010 ($9.99 from I also have to give a sentimental nod to Charles Dutoit's oft-underrated 1986 version with the Montreal Symphony. Dutoit's tempos are less propulsive and the sound is darker, but it, too, is treasurable. ArkivMusic offers sound samples of both.


11. Danae Dörken, Fantasy: $19
This SACD showcases an unusually serious, self-effacing, and perhaps somewhat wistful artist whose playing benefits from a rare sense of repose. Danae Dörken is a young (22 when this, her second, recording was made) German pianist who counts the late Yehudi Menuhin as one of her most important musical inspirations. When she was very young, Dörken played for Menuhin; as brief as their acquaintance was, his admiration and encouragement evidently had a profound impact on her.

The theme of this program is fantasias, and the sequencing is counterintuitive, at least to me. First is the big gun, Schumann's Phantasie in C, Op.17; there follows what would usually be considered a lesser work, C.P.E. Bach's Fantasy in f#, Wq.67/H.300; and finally, Schubert's discursive Fantasy in C, D.760, "Wanderer." I'd have been tempted to start with the Bach, followed by the Schubert, and end with the heavyweight Schumann. However, leading with the Schumann does allow Dörken to demonstrate from the get-go her finely calibrated dynamic control, free imagination in phrasing and pacing, and impressive technique. There is never the sense that she's showing off, or pushing the bar lines in a rush to get to the next technical challenge.

The sound quality is about as good as it gets. The venue was Emmanuel Church in Wuppertal, and there's a thank-you in the credits to Steinway Haus Düsseldorf. Well done all around. See the promotional video here. (SACD, Ars Produktion ARS 38 150)


10. Frank Sinatra: Where Are You? $30
When one thinks of concept albums, one usually thinks of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, inspired by the Beatles' Rubber Soul and inspiring in turn Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But Pet Sounds was not the first concept album. Credit for that belongs to Woody Guthrie, back in the day when album referred to an actual hardbound album, much like a scrapbook, made of board covers with reinforced inner sleeves capable of holding heavy 78rpm discs. Guthrie's Ballads from the Dust Bowl (aka Dust Bowl Ballads) was originally released in 1940, in two three-disc albums totaling 12 songs, all of them about the travails of migrant farmworkers—"Dust Pneumonia Blues" is a typical title.

In 1955, Frank Sinatra and producer Voyle Gilmore revived the concept album with In the Wee Small Hours, whose narrative arc was bent by the gravitational pull of Sinatra's intense grief over the failure of his second marriage, to Ava Gardner. Capitol originally released it on two 10" LPs, on a single 12" LP, and also on four four-song 45rpm EPs in cardboard sleeves, all with the same iconic cover as the LP.

In the Wee Small Hours and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958) are Sinatra's most commercially successful and best-known albums of torch songs, but my vote goes to Where Are You? (1957), his first album with Gordon Jenkins as arranger and conductor—it strikes a balance between bleak despair and superficial hipness. This limited-edition mono transfer is amazingly vivid; grab it while you can. (SACD/CD, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CMFSA-2109)


9. Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World: $75
I reviewed Alistaire Lawrence's LP-sized, 5-lb, 300-page book in the August 2014 issue. It not only provides exhaustive detail about the technical and business history of the world's largest, longest-running major commercial recording studio; it also serves as a guide to the history of and evolution of tastes in popular music, from Paul Robeson 78s in the 1930s to album rock and beyond. The production quality is first-class, and some of the photos are truly exceptional. A coffee-table book that anyone who cares about music will enjoy leafing through. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2012)


8. L'Oiseau-Lyre: The Baroque Era: $140
If not exactly hard on the heels of Archiv Produktion 1947–2013, last year's 55-CD boxed set of early-music recordings from Deutsche Grammophon, here the other shoe is very nicely dropped. "L'Oiseau-Lyre" is French for lyre-bird, which Australian pianist and philanthropist Louise Dyer chose as the name for her Parisian publishing venture. éditions de l'Oiseau-Lyre started out with the goal of creating scholarly editions of historical musical manuscripts, no expenses spared. Her first project, in 1933, was the complete works of Franáois Couperin, an achievement for which the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor.

In the early LP era, L'Oiseau-Lyre branched out into high-quality recordings with a focus on baroque harpsichord, sensibly delegating all technical tasks to Decca. In 1970, Decca acquired the label (the publishing house now operates under the auspices of the University of Melbourne). Decca got in just when the getting was excellent; the baroque revival in England had just reached critical mass, and an explosion of talent and creativity was ready to be captured in warm analog sound.

By's tally, these 50 CDs contain 260 works of music, with 30 of the 50 CDs by the late Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music. While there is the predictable "greatest hits" aspect (Messiah, Water Music, The Four Seasons, Brandenburgs), there are also lovely rarities such as theater music by Purcell et al, and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

The CDs are packaged in reproductions of the original LP jackets, multi-CD sets are packaged together, and a booklet contains extensive credits and a history of the label. A shoo-in for R2D4. Stay tuned: L'Oiseau-Lyre has more big boxes in the works. (50 CDs, L'Oiseau-Lyre 002072902)


7. RA—The Book: The Recording Architecture Book of Studio Design: $215
Very few of us can open our checkbooks and pay world-class experts to turn a historical dairy barn into a great recording studio for our own use. However, it sure is fun to read about. I reviewed this massive volume, by Roger D'Arcy and illustrator Hugh Flynn, in November 2013. The price is nontrivial—but it costs less than two hours' consultation with an expert who knows his stuff. Neil Waving's photographs are breathtaking. (London: Black Box Limited, 2011)


6. Peterson StroboSoft 2.0 Deluxe tuning software: $49.99–$129.99
Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB microphone: $80

Inexpensive clip-on tuners for guitars, violins, and other instruments suffer from two drawbacks. First, their operating principle is usually the piezoelectric effect, which is based on mechanical conduction, not soundwaves traveling through the air. Second, their inexpensive chip-based detectors and displays are not terribly accurate.

For musicians, professional or amateur, who wish to tune to the highest standards, Peterson, a name long associated with pipe-organ technology as well as electromechanical strobe tuners, offers a variety of software-based options that cost far less than the legendary strobe tuners of the golden age of rock (though they still make those as well).

Peterson's StroboSoft 2.0 Deluxe, in Mac or Windows versions, is their most capable software (external microphone required for best results). They also have less-ambitious versions for iPad, iPhone, iPod, and Android phones. Used with a good microphone and properly set up, StroboSoft is from 10 to 30 times more accurate than clip-on tuners, with a theoretical limit of accuracy of 1/1000 semitone (1/10 cent). However, as a practical matter, it's easier and faster to tune with the high-precision option disengaged.


Allen Fant's picture

Well done JM!

these are very nice gift options- which one will Santa bring you?

John Marks's picture

But Bricasti's new power amps might be nice stocking stuffers while Santa makes up his mind which world-class 9-foot concert grand to get down the chimney for me.

Thanks for reading,


Anon2's picture

Based on your review, I purchased the Danae Dörken SACD today. I look forward to hearing the recording. I equally appreciated your recent recommendation of guitar recordings. I am thinking of purchasing the RR CD of the Segovia-commissioned guitar compositions.

SACDs are a fantastic option, particularly for those of us who have tried and still not warmed to downloading. Pentatone, BIS, Channel Classics, to name a few, have superb recordings in the SACD format, to which I listen in the Red Book format and have no complaints.

I may also explore the Steinberg/Planets CD that you recommended.

For those who are interested, I would strongly recommend the Art of the Fugue CD, recently released on Hyperion, with Angela Hewitt at the piano. This is the latest installment of Ms. Hewitt's comprehensive survey of JS Bach's keyboard works. This recording is played on a Fazioli piano, and was recorded in one of the great classical recording venues of all time: Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin.

Others may wish to sample the recent and outstanding CD of Chopin and Schumann Etudes, played by the fast up-and-coming Valentina Lisitsa, on Decca.

If you don't have money for new equipment, no worries. There are system-enhancing recordings (and downloads for that constituency), not to mention free streaming options, and they are all emerging--by the hour it seems.

Keep up the good work on your recent recommendations. There's nothing like a good tip on a SACD, or even a regular CD.

John Marks's picture

And thanks for the recommendations! I get very upset when I hear people say, "I have a good system now, so I don't have to read Stereophile any more." News flash: Not all the good music has been written yet! And there are great performances that have not yet been released!



volvic's picture

"I have a good system now, so I don't have to read Stereophile any more."

I have a good system too and very happy with it but 50% of the reason I log in and subscribe is to get musical suggestions, without your article last year about the Archiv box and Fred Kaplan's recommendation on the Decca Analog Years box I never would have noticed them. This was one reason why I loved Meijia's and Ariel's musical suggestions; they opened my eyes to music I never would have noticed. Keep them coming guys!

Those that say they no longer read Stereophile because they now have a good system are not in this for the music but for the sound. I pity them. As the saying goes so much great music, so little time.

hollowman's picture

The aforementioned MSO/Dutoit/Planets is the best "Planets" I have heard (and I think I've heard most of them). That DDD 1986 London/Decca recording may also be the finest of the bunch.
Tight, dynamic, modern-sounding. It was among my first 20 or so CDs and remain a reference recording (now part of MODERN playlist, with Mars being a favorite.

volvic's picture

But partial to the Karajan digital version and do like the Previn version he did with EMI.

Anon2's picture

Here is what the 2000 Penguin Guide to Compact Discs listed as *** (outstanding performance and recording in every way). 2000 is for me the issue of this guide that I go back to the most even to this day.

Steinberg, BSO, DG (the one in this article).

Gardiner, Philharmonia Orch., DG digital
Dutoit, Montreal SO, Penguin Classics (Decca)
Boult, LPO, EMI
Karajan, BPO, DG digital
Solti, LPO, Decca
Mehta, LA Philharmonic, Decca
Roy Goodman, New Queen's Hall Orch., Carlton digital
Vernon Handley, Royal Philharmonic, Tring digitial

Another favorite of mine, which makes none of the rankings, was the Lorin Maazel recording of The Planets with the Orchestre National de France.

The Yoel Levi version of The Planets on Telarc, Atlanta SO, stands as a recommended recording on ArkivMusic.

volvic's picture

Forgot about the brilliant Maazel version.