It has been common practice over the last two centuries to produce piano versions of symphonies and other large-scale works. Often, but not always, these would have been in the form of piano duets. One need only think of the transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies by Xaver Scharwenka and the Dover Edition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. This practice also extended to chamber music and grand opera. These would allow listeners to study the great works and be able to hear them performed when no competent orchestra was available. So it is hardly surprising that a four hands/one piano version of The Planets was prepared by Holst.
It is not necessary to rehearse the form and genesis of The Planets in this review, save to make one or two comments. Firstly, The Planets, Op.32 – Suite for Large Orchestra remains Gustav Holst’s most popular work. At present there are over 80 recordings of this work available on CD. For many people it is the only work of the composer’s that they know. Classic FM regularly excerpts movements – especially Jupiter, Mars and Venus. Critically, The Planets deserves all the praise and plaudits it receives: it is an impressive, satisfying and ultimately successful piece of music.
Secondly Holst began the work in 1914, completing Mars before the outbreak of hostilities. The final pages of Mercury were not complete until 1916. The first private performance was given by Balfour Gardiner in September 1918.
And thirdly, Imogen Holst’s Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s music notes a number of versions of The Planets. This includes manuscripts for a two-piano arrangement by the composer and the present arrangement for four hands/one piano by Nora Day and Vally Lasker, which seems to have been published by F&B Goodwin in 1923. This is noted by Michael Short as being their edited version of Holst’s original short score. The four hands/two-piano version has been given an excellent recording on Naxos 8.554369 with Robert Chamberlain and Len Vorster.
I must confess that I was not sure how much I would enjoy this particular incarnation. Yet I was in for a great shock – or was it a hugely pleasant surprise? This is a stunning performance: there is simply no other way of putting it. The drive, mystery and sheer poetic colour of the original are all present and correct. However in many ways the structure and the sound-world are enhanced by this recording. The music somehow seems clearer and lines of development more obvious. I cannot say why this is, but I certainly enjoyed this performance and will certainly turn to it again.
Included on this excellent disc is York Bowen’s Suite, Op.52. There is some discussion as to whether this work is actually Op.52 or Op.53: the former was noted on the title page and the latter in the musical text! It was composed in May 1919. Ten or so years ago Bruce Posner and Donald Garvelmann brought out a CD called ‘On Heather Hill’. This contained the ‘complete’ four-hands/one piano music of Bowen, so this present recording is a welcome re-run of part of this repertoire. The Suite was voted the ‘best pianoforte duet by a British composer’ in a competition organised by the Musical Opinion magazine in 1919. There are three movements characterised by the Rachaminovian romance of the opening Prelude, the buoyant, modal Dance with its nods to the sound-world of Percy Grainger and the mysterious Nocturne that owes so much to Debussy and Borodin.
Finally John and Fiona York play the ‘Moto perpetuo’ which is the Finale of the Suite No.2, Op.71. It is a superbly complex and athletic number which would surely bring the house down at any recital.
This is an excellent recording from a totally committed duo. The disc is enjoyable from the very first note to the last. The playing is utterly sympathetic and inspired. With their recording of the four-hands/two piano version of Holst’s Planets, they have made a major contribution to British music. It is an achievement that will long stand the test of time and could hardly be bettered.
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The Planets, Op.32 (version for 4 hands as one piano by the composer with Nora Day and Vally Lasker – ed. John and Fiona York) (1913) York BOWEN (1884-1961) Suite in Three Movements, Op.52 (1919); Suite No.2, Op.71 (1923) Finale: Moto perpetuo
Fiona York and John York (piano)
NIMBUS NI5871 [70:28]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published