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
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
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
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.
See also review by
John France February RECORDING
OF THE MONTH