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Zoforbit: A Space Odyssey
Urmas SISASK (b. 1960)
The Milky Way. Piano Sonata Op. 24 for Four Hands (1990) [11:34]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 (1914/14) (arr. Zimmermann and Nakagoshi) [43:47]
George CRUMB (b. 1929)
Celestial Mechanics (Makrokosmos IV): Cosmic Dances for Amplified Piano, Four-Hands (1979) [8:54]
David LONG (b. 1957)
Gravity (2005) [5:08]
ZOFO (Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi) (piano)
rec. September 2013, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92178 [CD and BD-A: 69:21]

The Swiss pianist Eva-Maria Zimmermann and her Japanese-born colleague, Keisuke Nakagoshi teamed up in 2009 to play as a one-piano-four-hands partnership under the name ZOFO in addition to pursuing their respective individual careers. ZOFO is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra. Here they offer an intriguing programme which might be described as interplanetary in concept.

The principal work is Holst’s The Planets. This great orchestral score also exists in a version by the composer for two pianos (review) and also, apparently, in a one-piano-four-hands version (review; review). The former is given an occasional airing but, as the notes say, these versions were made while The Planets was still a work in progress. It appears that a one-piano-four-hands arrangement was also made by two friends of Holst, Nora Day and Vally Lasker, which was signed by the composer; the notes imply that his signature conveyed some legitimacy on that version. What is recorded here is an arrangement by Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi which they have made from a combination of the orchestral score, Holst’s two-piano version and the Day/Lasker arrangement.

Despite the undoubted skill of ZOFO in playing it I fear that this traversal of The Planets struck me as being pretty thin gruel. Some things work quite well – up to a point. The music of ‘Mars’ has a pronounced percussive quality anyway so that can be communicated reasonably well on a piano. However, the colour and variety of timbre that one finds in the orchestral score is entirely absent and one quickly realises how vital an ingredient is Holst’s inventive orchestration. Furthermore, in this reduced version the mighty climaxes sound puny.

‘Venus’ is delicately played but again one craves to hear the notes in the composer’s subtle pastel orchestration. Simply as a piano scherzo ‘Mercury’ comes off quite well and I hope I’ll be pardoned for a pun in saying that ZOFO’s playing is suitably mercurial. However, by the time I got to ‘Jupiter’ I’m afraid that, for all the artistry of the two pianists my ears had become rather weary of the sound of a single piano. Not only is the lack of colour increasingly apparent as the performance of the suite goes on but, to make matters worse, the Big Tune in ‘Jupiter’ is rather diminished in this performance. I could go on but I think you have the picture by now. The resources even of two expert pianists are over-extended by this music and when ‘Neptune’ starts to fade into the distance there is, of course, no female chorus to add yet another strand of colour. I’m afraid I shouldn’t want to hear this performance again: it’s far too limited and limiting.

The rest of the programme consists of more recent music, all of which was specifically composed for the one-piano-four-hands medium. Two pieces are offered from George Crumb’s fourth Mikrokosmos book. These are ‘Alpha Centauri’ and ‘Beta Cygni’. To be honest, I don’t feel qualified to comment on this music or the performance it receives. Some of the sounds that Crumb conjures up are intriguing, especially in ‘Beta Cygni’. However, this is music which I don’t profess to understand, nor does it appeal to me.

Urmas Sisask is an Estonian composer who has a longstanding fascination with astronomy. We learn from the useful notes that so great is his interest that he has written a number of pieces using a musical system of his own creation, which he calls “astro-music”. This system involves a mode, which he calls the “planetal scale”, consisting of five notes: C-sharp, D, F-sharp, G-sharp and A. The Milky Way is an example of astro-music. It’s cast in two short, untitled movements. It’s not unpleasant listening but the musical material seemed very limited to me and the music, much of which is played at very soft dynamic levels, doesn’t make a very strong impression.

Gravity is by the American composer, David Long. He writes in the booklet that he wanted to compose “a kind of music that would always be falling….and yet never really resting or landing.” The music is slow and consonant. To my ears the material is somewhat repetitive but I have to say that it’s strangely hypnotic. It’s played with no little finesse.

I think this is a pretty niche disc and one with limited appeal to collectors. For all that the arrangement of the Holst does, to some extent, reveal the music’s inner workings I believe that the loss of colour is a significant drawback. I’m not sure how often one would want to hear Holst’s great score played like this yet this is presumably the principal attraction of the programme.

The package offer both a CD and a BD-A. The recording is clear and crisp. However, when this recording was auditioned in its BD-A format in the MusicWeb Listening Studio a little while ago we felt that the recording was decent but unremarkable. The listening that I’ve done since then on my own equipment has not changed that view.

John Quinn