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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op.32 (version for 4 hands, one piano by the composer with Nora Day and Vally Lasker Ė ed. John and Fiona York) (1914-16) [50:06]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Suite in Three Movements, Op.52 (1919) [17:42]
Suite No.2, Op.71 (1923) Finale: Moto perpetuo [2:40]
York2 Duo: Fiona and John York (piano)
rec. February (Holst) and July 2010 (Bowen), Nimbus Foundation Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5871 [70:28]

Experience Classicsonline

Gustav Holst was the Director of Music of St. Paulís Girlsí School in London between the years 1905 and 1934. John York is currently the Senior Music Head of Department at the same school. It happened that in this school, in a cupboard of Holstís room, John York found a leather-bound, engraved copy of Holstís The Planets, arranged for 4 hands, one piano. The version was prepared with the help of two of Holstís colleagues, Nora Day and Vally Lasker. Additional editing was done by John and Fiona York.

The 4-hand version is no substitute for the full orchestral one. This is probably most apparent in the opening number, Mars. The timbre of the heavy brass, like bellowing of battle elephants, colors this orchestral sound in violent dark red. Much of the musical progression is repetitive. In the full version this is concealed behind the constant change of color; the piano is not able match this ability completely. As a result, the music drags a bit. The final climax also loses much of its cosmic horror.

In the beginning of the static and mysterious Venus I get a feeling that a softer touch would have been better. But the further in the more I become enthralled by these impressionistic splashes, and the last minutes are magical. Itís possible that the performers deliberately avoided excessive softness, in order not to fall into the standard Debussian watercolors.

John York wrote in the liner-note that Mercury gave them the most trouble. Whatever their problems were, the pianists overcame them. The rhythmic precision is stunning. The silver glitter is dry and not too warm: the taste of Brut Champagne, exactly as needed.

Holstís Jupiter is The Bringer of Jollity Ė and, surprisingly, thatís exactly what the music depicts: jollity, not solemnity, or grandeur, or other possible attributes of The Supreme One. This is Sir John Falstaff, dancing as he arrives, and humming the most hummable tunes! The music is not vulgar: there is much nobility in the Elgarian melodies, especially in the stately middle episode. This middle episode has the British imperial air around it, and the pianists play it with restraint. The performance is splendid, lively and bright, excellently conveying Holstís humor. Music to raise your spirits!

Saturn is The Bringer of Old Age. Nothing is easy when youíre old, and the music breathes with an effort. Its steps are heavy. The middle episode quickens the tempo, and the tension grows. The climax is dark and heavy, though not as sinister as in the orchestral version. In the final part, the texture brightens and warms. There appear to be some good things in old age after all!

Uranus, the Magician seems to be a good pal of Dukasís Sorcerer. In the orchestral version, the feeling of galloping power is created by mighty brass and colorful percussion. The piano version avoids being flat by using different registers. John and Fiona produce some spectacular fireworks here.

The soft shimmer and shine of the full-version of Neptune is painted by gentle woodwinds and by the mystic, wordless womenís choir, like voices of sea sirens coming through the fog. The Yorks manage to reproduce this misty atmosphere. Again, their piano does not sound for a single moment like Debussy: the sound is focused and well defined, and this only increases the depth and the mystery. Certainly, the finale of the original Neptune is unique, and there canít be a substitute for that feeling of awe when the mesmerizing chorus enters. Itís out of this world, in all senses. But apart from this, frankly, I think that the Yorks hit the bullís eye. The tempo, the dynamics, the viscid drift, the slowly swirling clouds Ė all is perfect.

It is very interesting to hear how such a rich orchestral score as The Planets can be rendered on a single piano. After listening to the entire suite, the conclusion has to be that the piano is a fantastic instrument! One should know all its psychology, but Fiona and John York donít seem to lack anything here. Their sound is so different in each piece. My minor objections are mostly about Mars (I still find it drags after many listenings) and the beginning of Venus. But I understand that they canít play much more than is in the notes, and the level of polish and attention that the composer devoted to this transcription certainly cannot compare to those that the orchestral version received.

As a fill-up we have some less familiar music: the Suite No.1 by York Bowen, to which the pianists added the Finale movement from the Suite No.2. This was a smart decision: the first suite, ending on the lyrical Nocturne, would sound incomplete, and with the added Finale it obtains a closed 4-movement structure, similar to Rachmaninovís Second Suite. The Prelude has a wide Romantic flow, with rising and falling tides. It is warm and ecstatic, and sounds a lot like Rachmaninov, though with a simpler harmonic structure. The second part is entitled Dance, which does not seem to me a good description of its character. Its structure is tripartite. The outer parts are fast and cheerful, almost march-like. The middle episode is slower, more lyrical, and very songlike. The entire construction seems overlong for its contents. Nocturne again borrows some melodic and harmonic moves from Rachmaninov (or, through him, from Borodin). It is warm and sensual, and builds to a dramatic climax. The music has movement and depth. John and Fiona give it a beautiful and expressive Ė Iíd even say, loving - performance. The Finale is mercurial and happy. It has some nice Lisztian waterplay, and ends just at the right moment.

This disc is a piano duo feast. The coordination of the partners is marvelous, the variety of the sounds they produce is spectacular, and the feeling of the right sound at the right moment is priceless. Regrettably, the music itself has a certain second-hand feeling, though for different reasons. The 4-hand version of The Planets is a faithful portrait of the full version, but much is lost. However excellent the playing, I doubt Iíll ever take it to listen when I have the orchestral version next to it on the shelf. And Bowenís work could too easily be attributed to Rachmaninov. No doubt, another ďRachĒ piano suite is a good thing, but itís not quite on the same level of inspiration.

Still Ė my standing applause to York2, who once again prove their reputation as a ďduo with a differenceĒ! Where can I get in line for their future discs? The recorded sound can be bettered in terms of depth and presence. It is clear, but somewhat two-dimensional. The booklet contains an excellent essay by John York about the history of creation of The Planets (both the original and the piano version), and more.

Oleg Ledeniov

See also review by John France February RECORDING OF THE MONTH