Saturday, 7 July 2012

British Music for Piano Duo: Holst, Bainton, Bury & Elgar

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Serenade for Strings in E minor,  Op.20 – the composer’s own version for piano duet (1893); Frank Bury (1910-1944) Prelude and Fugue in E flat major for two pianos (c.1935/f.p. 1987); Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) Miniature Suite for piano duet (1922); Gustav Holst (1874-1934) Elegy (In Memoriam William Morris) From Symphony in F (‘The Cotswolds’ – the composer’s own version for two pianos (1899-1900); Gustav Holst The Planets – the composer’s original version for two piano (1913- )
Anthony Goldstone (piano) and Caroline Clemmow (piano)
Divine Art ddv24154 [74:29]

The main event of this new CD from Divine Art is Gustav’s Holst’s own two-piano version of his masterpiece The Planets. This work has impressed and moved me since first hearing the Scottish National Orchestra playing it more than 40 years ago. However, when I approached the two-piano version of this work I was a little wary, and a touch cynical. Still, I need not have worried. It is a valid account of this work that inspires, excites and often astounds. The highlight of Goldstone and Clemmow’s playing has to be the marvellous interpretation of ‘Jupiter’ – with its ‘loping’ march tune.  However, the intricacies of Mercury, the rhythmic drive of Mars, the romance of Venus and the more rarefied atmosphere of the distant spheres are all impressive.
Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings has always been one of my favourite works for the string orchestra medium.  However, I am not sure that I need a recording of a piano duet version. On the other hand, it is interesting to hear. There is a clarity about this duet that allows the harmonic and melodic progress of the music to be heard in detail. I guess that it is good to have in my collection; nonetheless, I will not turn to this version in preference to Boult or Barbirolli and the band.
I have not come across the music of Frank Bury before.  He was killed during the Normandy Landings in 1944.  Certainly, this beautiful short Prelude and Fugue demonstrates his compositional skills. The opening Prelude is a master class in the genre of English ‘pastoral’ whilst the more ambitious fugue nods to Handel in the ‘theme’. However, the exposition of the fugue is anything but baroque. Although this big, powerful work is largely ‘conservative’ in its musical language, it manages to push the boundaries towards an almost Prokofievian intensity. I understand this is the only composition of Bury’s currently available on CD. Based on this Prelude and Fugue we have to hope there will be a deeper exploration of this unknown composer. Unfortunately, this present work would appear to be the only one in print at this time: I hope someone will tell me that I am wrong on this score.
Edgar L. Bainton is a composer with whom I can do business. Whether it is one of his three symphonies or the great anthem ‘And I saw a new Heaven’, he always exhibits a craftsman like approach to his music: it typically inspires and moves the listener. As an admirer of Richard Wagner, his musical style is neo-romantic; however, this does not imply that he wrote parodies or pastiches of an earlier generation of music. The Miniature Suite for piano duet is a perfect miniature displaying a typically ‘English’ mood – with nods to Debussy and Vaughan Williams. There is nothing here of a Wagnerian disposition. My only criticism is that it is excessively short.
Holst’s ‘Elegy’ (In Memoriam William Morris) is a dark, austere work that is funereal in its progress. It is written as a processional march – with a huge climax in the middle section. If I am honest I prefer the orchestral version, however, the present two-piano version preserves the dignity of the original. It is difficult to understand from the liner notes whether this piece is performed in the Colin Matthew’s ‘modern performing edition’ or as the track listings suggest that is is played directly from Holst’s own ‘version for two pianos.’
In spite of my reservations about the Elgar ‘Serenade’, this is an important release from Divine Art. The recording is excellent: the playing of all the works is superb. The interaction between Goldstone and Clemmow is tight and always musically convincing. I do not wish to compare this present version of The Planets with that of Fiona and John York on NIMBUS Records NI5871. However, I did suggest in my review of that CD that it was ‘an achievement that will long stand the test of time and will hardly be bettered’. Whether the present recording is ‘better’ is largely irrelevant. Certainly, as far as The Planets is concerned, it is a little shorter. However, I thoroughly enjoyed both two-piano versions of this great work.  Moreover, the Frank Bury and Edgar Bainton are attractive bonuses.

Comment received:-
Can I point out that the version played here, and the one performed by the Yorks on the Nimbus disc, are DIFFERENT WORKS……. The Yorks do not play on two pianos but as a piano duet (on one instrument) using the version revised from the orchestral piece by Nora Day and Vally Lasker, under Holst’s supervision .
The version on our disc is Holst’s original two –piano version which PRECEDED the orchestral one…. so has many differences, and so a direct comparison is rather more problematical. .
Divine Art

Thanks for that JF!

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