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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)

Toccata (1924), Chrissemas Day in the Morning, op. 46/1 (1926), O! I hae seen the roses blaw, op. 46/2 (1927), The Shoemakker, op. 46/3 (1927), Nocturne (1930), Jig (1932), The Planets, op. 32 (arr. Holst, Lasker and Day).
YORK 2 (Fiona and John York) (pianoforte)
27th March 2000 (Planets) at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England,
10th May 2000 at St. Georges, Brandon Hill, Bristol, England (solo pieces)
BLACK BOX BBM1041 [61’ 19"]


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The first fifteen minutes of this disc constitute the Complete Works of Gustav Holst for solo piano. These may be tiny chippings from the master’s workshop yet they all reflect his astringent originality. They are not all that easy to bring off; "O! I hae seen the roses blaw", for instance, starts off like a dead simple Grade One arrangement (though a first year student might find the harmonies a bit odd) and then wraps the tune around first with decorative running passages and then with typical chords based on fourths. None of these decorations seem to have much to do with the theme itself and if they are not kept well separated both tonally and dynamically the piece can just sound a mess. The present performance makes excellent sense of it.

It is possible to feel that both the Toccata and "Chrissemas Day", lively as they are, have their most interesting moments near the beginning, something that can hardly be said of "The Shoemakker" which is over in 40 seconds.

The Nocturne and Jig were the result of a request from Holst’s daughter Imogen for some piano pieces that were not based on folksongs. The Nocturne is extremely effective and rewarding, both for the pianist (it is real pianistic writing) and the listener (it has atmosphere but also contrast). The Jig has always seemed to me a rather grey and dogmatic bit of fugal writing and the performance does not convince me otherwise.

We are not told which of the two pianists plays but in both the Toccata and the Jig I detect a tendency to rush ahead impetuously, keeping textures none too clean, where cool headed clarity is surely the order of the day. The other three folksong pieces are excellent from this point of view so I suppose that one pianist plays the Toccata, Nocturne and Jig while the other plays the rest, and one is more suited to the music than the other. But I don’t want to make too much of this; if you want to get to know Holst’s piano music this is a good-to-excellent guide.

The "filler", or the "main work" (whichever way you look at it) is the first recording of a piano-duet arrangement of "The Planets" made by two of Holst’s assistants, Vally Lasker and Nora Day. As a way of getting hands-on experience of the music I can think of nothing better and I am surprised it has not been disseminated more widely, since I am sure most music students would enjoy "having a go". As an alternative listening experience, well, some parts work better than others. The sheer modernity of Mars certainly strikes one anew, while elsewhere the influence of Debussy is more evident than it is when garbed in Holst’s not very Debussian orchestral colours. This also has the effect of reducing the music in scale, Venus and Mercury emerging as pastel-coloured little character-pieces. Jupiter is surprisingly ineffective, the outer sections jaunty but again reduced in scale, and "the" tune no more effective than the average classroom rendering as a hymn. As for Saturn and Neptune, the lack of sustained sounds makes these only intermittently convincing and even raises doubts as to how much actual music these pieces contain without an orchestra to flesh it out.

Any difference in style noted between the two pianists does not seem to affect them when they work together and their unanimity of purpose is beyond praise. It is interesting that the performance often seemed to be slower than one usually hears on the orchestra, but a glance at the timings of Boult’s fourth (New Philharmonia) recording reveals that they are slower only in Mars and Neptune, and not to any great degree, while in all other movement Boult’s timings are longer, often startlingly so. Saturn, for instance, takes him 9’ 09" compared with the Yorks’ 7’ 36" – and even so the piano cannot really sustain it.

I must say I found this quite instructive to hear once, mentally comparing it with the well-known orchestral sounds. But whatever would anyone make of it who heard it without knowing the orchestral version? Well, one person who heard this version before he, or anybody else, had heard an orchestral performance was a young man called Adrian Boult, who later recalled hearing Misses Lasker and Day play it in 1917. And the rest is history. (Oddly, the notes date the arrangement 1932 but I trust Sir Adrian’s memory; was it maybe revised in 1932?).

Christopher Howell



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