Gustav Holst wrote a great deal of wonderful music, but it remains a mystery why he never again produced anything as invigorating, memorable and original as The Planets. Strong claims can of course be made for some of his other works, but set against the barbaric savagery of ‘Mars’ or the ineffable serenity of ‘Venus’, to name but the first two of Holst’s unusual planetary sequence, they cannot really compete. Maybe the composer’s relentless search for the new, coupled with the disconcerting popularity of the piece itself, deterred him from further exploration along this particular orbit.
So it is all the more intriguing to encounter The Planets – a work perilously close to qualification as a warhorse—in a new and startling guise. Just recently I seem to have caught a spate of outings for The Rite of Spring on two pianos; and now, along comes Holst’s masterpiece similarly attired, and making a similarly forceful impact. Shorn of their brilliant orchestral colours , movements such as ‘Saturn’ with its clangorous bells, or ‘Uranus’ with its majestic heavy brass, let alone ‘Neptune’ with its fading female chorus, would all (you might think) lose their appeal. Not a bit of it, and certainly not in a performance which, as here, seems positively to revel in this new-found leanness, sometimes even percussive glare. ‘Jupiter’ is exhilarating, and the famous tune at its heart may be taken poco meno mosso but is not drooled over. The wispy chorus in ‘Neptune’ is replaced by a greater awareness of Holst’s sinewy countermelodies, the electrically-engineered fade-out entirely inoffensive. I defy any listener not to be shaken and stirred.
Famously, The Planets was tried out at St. Paul’s Girls’ School by two pianists on the staff, Vally Lasker and Nora Day. A piano-duet version exists, as well as the two-piano score: whose hands were involved in each, and in what order, is not entirely clear. John and Fiona York have recorded the duet version, very successfully: the Goldstone-Clemmow two-piano version was recorded in 1996 and originally appeared on a different label. On this welcome reissue, with a very bright piano sound and excellent notes by the pianists themselves, it joins more recent recordings on Naxos and Delos.
Nor are The Planets the sole contribution by Holst. Jo-Ann Falletta’s recent Naxos CD of his ‘Cotswolds’ Symphony has had considerable exposure (it was reviewed in the last issue)—actually confirming the impression made by Douglas Bostock’s pioneering version of the same work on the Classico label that this is an untypical piece. Yet the slow movement, an Elegy to the memory of William Morris, is arguably the most successful movement, and again Goldstone and Clemmow do it full justice in its two-piano form. The climax in particular is powerful, even a touch grandiose.
The Holst items turn up last on the disc. I had slight qualms on first putting it in the player, as the first three tracks are Elgar’s own piano-duet version of his string Serenade, whose central larghetto is particularly affecting, and a personal favourite. No cause for alarm: on its own terms, the arrangement comes off surprisingly well, not least because the more brittle sound of the piano adds a distinct, even welcome, touch of muscle to the contours of the piece. As for the other two works, Bainton’s Miniature Suite is over in a flash but charming for all that; while the Prelude and Fugue by Frank Bury, killed in the Second World War in the Normandy landings, is a real find, the attractive and powerful fugue in particular culminating in some powerful rhetoric towards its close. The mixture on this disc of old wine in new bottles, together with a splash of Beaujolais nouveau, is one to savour.
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