Holst The Planets, Bowen Suite - York2, One piano Four hands
The generative threads of this music were spun at St. Paul’s Girls’ School on Brook Green in Hammersmith, west London. The elegant Edwardian buildings where Gustav Holst served as the school’s first Director of Music from 1905 until his death in 1934 housed modern facilities and clever colleagues who would become central to Holst’s compositional experiments. His bright, well-heated soundproof room was where, mostly at weekends between 1914 and 16, he wrote and rehearsed The Planets before its auspicious public debut in 1918 at the Queen’s Hall. The splendid galleried Great Hall at the school provided the perfect space and acoustic for private performance, much to the delight of the cleaners who danced to the music of Uranus! In a cupboard in that same room I found a leather-bound, engraved copy of the four-hands, one-piano version, carefully prepared by Holst and his contemporaries on the staff. It is signed by the composer and credited to his devoted colleagues and amanuenses, Nora Day and Vally Lasker. It is well known that he often dictated compositions to these respected teachers when the painful neuritis from which he suffered for many years precluded normal writing. Indeed, he often entrusted the more laborious aspects of his work (instrumentation, copying, arrangement, run-throughs) to them, knowing they would follow his instructions in every detail.
York2 – John and Fiona York – have built their international reputation by performing original four-hands-on-one-piano versions of great early 20th-century orchestral masterpieces. They started with the most famous of them all, The Rite of Spring, the electrifying ballet by Stravinsky, originally for piano duet and played in that version by the composer with Debussy. They have gone on to perform Debussy’s glorious La Mer, Ravel’s sensuous Rapsodie espagnole and, unique to York2, Holst’s inimitable The Planets, all in duet versions done by the composers themselves. Interestingly, John found the long-forgotten four-hands-on-one-piano score, signed by Holst himself, at St Paul’s Girls’ School, west London, where it was composed.
York2 are at home with the mass of standard 19th- and 20th-century piano duet repertoire. They feel, however, that blockbusters which are usually known in their orchestral versions gain clarity in the texture and the rhythm when played on one piano by two pianists who are committed to delivering the complex detail and colour of the scores. Familiar music thereby gains a new focus and transparency. Audiences love the visual impact created by two people mastering the demands usually placed upon a 100-piece orchestra, and the tension is enhanced, inevitably, by the precision, close contact and intricate choreography of the playing.
"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."
Oleg Ledeniov musicweb-international.com
"The players conjure up a vast array of sonorities from the stabbing percussive writing of 'Mars'...while 'Jupiter's' opening and closing pages present a virtuosic and intricate patchwork of diverse and wide-ranging figurations of which it's very hard to conceive being performed on the one instrument. The impressionistic opalescent shifting of chords in 'Neptune' are beautifully brought out, while the delicate closing bars of 'Saturn' reveal an immense subtlety and control of the sustaining pedal in simultaneously conjuring up different qualities of sound and articulation from different areas of the keyboard. Highly recommended." Nicolas Salwey, International Record Review
"John and Fiona York have a close connection with Gustav Holst beyond their impressive realisation of The Planets on this excellent new recording. They are both teachers at St. Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith where Holst was the director of music for nearly thirty years. The CD liner-notes tell how John York found a leather-bound engraved copy of the four hands/one-piano version of The Planets. It had been signed by the composer and his two assistants on the project Nora Day and Vally Lasker. The piano duet team decided that the time was ripe to revive this long forgotten score.
I must confess that I was not sure how much I would enjoy this particular incarnation. Yet I was in for a great shock – or was it a hugely pleasant surprise? This is a stunning performance: there is simply no other way of putting it. The drive, mystery and sheer poetic colour of the original are all present and correct. However in many ways the structure and the sound-world are enhanced by this recording. The music somehow seems clearer and lines of development more obvious. I cannot say why this is, but I certainly enjoyed this performance and will certainly turn to it again.
Included on this excellent disc is York Bowen’s Suite, Op.52. The Suite was voted the ‘best pianoforte duet by a British composer’ in a competition organised by the Musical Opinion magazine in 1919. There are three movements characterised by the Rachmaninovian romance of the opening Prelude, the buoyant, modal Dance with its nods to the sound-world of Percy Grainger and the mysterious Nocturne that owes so much to Debussy and Borodin. Finally John and Fiona York play the ‘Moto perpetuo’ which is the Finale of the Suite No.2, Op.71. It is a superbly complex and athletic number which would surely bring the house down at any recital.
This is an excellent recording from a totally committed duo. The disc is enjoyable from the very first note to the last. The playing is utterly sympathetic and inspired. With their recording of Holst’s Planets, they have made a major contribution to British music. It is an achievement that will long stand the test of time and could hardly be bettered".
John France, Musicweb-international.com