The Classical Reviewer

Many people will think that Gustav Holst’s The Planets was premiered in September 1918 at a private performance by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. In fact it was a performance given in the music hall of St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, in its original version for two pianos, by Vally Lasker and Nora Day that came first.

Vally Lasker and Nora Day were two of Holst’s assistants at the school where he was Director of Music. Holst’s daughter, Imogen, was present sitting ‘just behind VW (Ralph Vaughan Williams) and Gussy as we all called him.’ The two pianists in this first performance later made a piano duet arrangement in order to make the work available to a wider number of performers.

Around the same time Holst found a country retreat two miles from Thaxted, Essex where he spent his weekends in a three hundred year old cottage surrounded by cornfields that much of the orchestration of The Planets was done.

The orchestral premiere of The Planets was conducted at Holst’s request by Adrian Boult, in the Queen’s Hall, London on 29 th September 1918 before an invited audience.

Holst had taken up an offer from the Y.M.C.A. authorities for a post as Musical Organiser of educational work among the troops in the Near East. The Queen’s Hall performance on 29 th September was funded by Holst’s friend and fellow composer Henry Balfour Gardiner as a parting gift.

It was Adrian Boult that gave the first public performance of The Planets on 27 th February 1919. Boult decided to play only five of the movements, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter as he believed that the public would find difficulty assimilating such a new work of this length.

Holst himself conducted Venus, Mercury and Jupiter at a Queen’s Hall concert on 22 nd November the same year and there was a performance of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter at concert in Birmingham on 10th October 1920.

Imogen Holst said that ‘…he hated incomplete performances of The Planets, though on several occasions he had to agree to conduct three or four movements at Queen’s Hall concerts…’

The first complete public performance of The Planets was not until 15 th November 1920 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates.

It is this ‘original’ version for two pianos that Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow perform on a re-issue on the Diversions label from Divine Art Recordings

This disc also includes the Elegy from Holst’s early Cotswold Symphony as well as a piano duet performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Edgar Bainton’s Miniature Suite for piano duet and Frank Bury’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat for two pianos.

Holst knew that only a large orchestra could do full justice to his Planets but this recording by the brilliant duo Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow show precisely what can be gained in a two piano performance. Mars is forceful but never strident, building to a formidable climax. After some delicate playing in the beautifully cool and peaceful Venus, Mercury is sparkling, really taking flight in playing of astonishing accuracy.

In Jupiter the two pianos sound, at times, like celebratory bells whilst the big tune is played with simplicity and without undue pomp. The two piano version of Saturn shows more than anywhere else the modernity of the writing and it is no wonder that Boult was concerned about an audience assimilating the whole work for the first time.

Uranus is played with great swagger and superb precision whilst Neptune provides a conclusion of beautifully delicate and fluent playing, again highlighting the strangeness of the almost Debussian writing.

Elgar’s duet version of his Serenade for String Orchestra provides a complete contrast, lending itself well to the piano in a performance of intimacy, with the music never forced.

In my blog of 26 th March 2012 I spoke of a performance by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow at Millichope Park in Shropshire of Frank Bury’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat for two pianos, a really fine work written in the 1930’s. Millichope Park was the home of Frank Bury and is still in the same family. The Prelude and Fugue gets a wonderful performance on this disc bringing out a real depth of feeling in the prelude and providing a scintillating fugue.

Edgar Bainton has been well served by the record companies such as Dutton Vocalion who have recorded his third symphony and some orchestral works and Chandos Records who have recorded his second symphony and some orchestral works. Of course Bainton lived to a good age whereas Bury’s life was tragically cut short by the Second World War.

Bainton’s short Miniature Suite for piano duet is something of a small gem, its three movements lasting only just over four minutes. Goldstone and Clemmow bring just the right amount of timeless feeling to the Minuet and Barcarolle and close with a delightful performance of the English Dance.

Holst ends the programme with the Elegy (In Memoriam William Morris). The Elegy is from his early Cotwold Symphony once negelected but now recorded twice, by Classico Records now licensed to Scandinavian Classics (available via Amazon) and Naxos Records. Here the Elegy receives a sensitive performance in Holst’s own two piano arrangement.

There can be no doubt that Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow are one of the finest piano duos around and the recording made in the church of St. John the Baptist, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire is full, clear and detailed.

—Bruce Reader