Listening to two-piano arrangements of orchestral scores – even those in the composer’s own hand – consistently produces a “work-in-progress” effect, a kind of academic insight that usually pales in comparison with the finished product’s instrumental timbres. Certainly, my reaction to Elgar’s own 1893 (published in Leipzig) lovely Serenade for Strings in E Minor has been to gravitate back to the Beecham or Barbirolli version with orchestra. But as a preparatory study in delicate keyboard textures and melodic lines, the Edwardian tracery by the Goldstone-Clemmow duo has its own charms, undeniably.
I did not know of the composer Frank Bury (1910-1944), a gifted pupil of Malcolm Sargent and Bruno Walter whose Prelude and Fugue for Two Pianos (c. 1938) has a carillon effect, a glitter and noble cast that bear the influence of the British chorale tradition. The rhythmically audacious Fugue enters more daring harmonic labyrinths, even to the extent of a bitonal moment or two. Bury’s essential fusion of Handel and modernist elements, sadly, was to be curtailed with his death during WW II, his having been part of a commando raid on Normandy in June, 1944.
Another newcomer to my ears, Edgar Bainton (1880-1956), composed his Miniature Suite in 1922. A pupil of Stanford, Bainton shared classes and enthusiasm for Wagner with his fellow, Gustav Holst. The modest Suite has three movements, cast in folkish sentiments that shine gently in the manner of Grainger or Harty. Holst himself first crosses our musical path with his Elegy from his Symphony in F (1899-1900). The “socialist” writer William Morris (1834-1896) caught Holst’s literary and philosophical imagination, especially the idea that art should prove accessible to all social classes. The Symphony in F from which the Elegy derives has not survived in the repertory, after having been given—rather shabbily —by Dan Godfrey in Bournemouth in 1902. The Elegy proceeds in a decidedly funereal cast, but the part writing remains clear and smoothly lucid, perhaps touched by both Brahms and Ravel. The music gathers a firm momentum, grave and even colossal at moments. The piece ends in quiet dignity.
The two-piano form of The Planets (1914-1916) pre-dates the orchestral version; and it is in this form that the public first heard the suite at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, West London, under the hands of Vally Lasker and Nora Day. Though Adrian Boult performed a partial orchestral score in 1918, the first public performance of the full score occurred in 1920, Albert Coates conducting. Holst, though conscious of WW I and the desire for an end to conflict, thought of his planets in their mythological association; perhaps “astrological” is the better term, Holst’s interest coming from Clifford Bax, the composer Arnold’s younger brother. The percussive keyboard effects of doomsday Mars bring forward its reliance on the tritone, the hard-driven, five-beat insistence finding a kind of Stravinsky analogue in anxiety and unpredictability. Venus , juxtaposed against Mars , offers a tranquil moment of repose, the spirit of Debussy’s water pieces nigh. Mercury patters in the manner of a telegraph key, the bravura scales and broken ostinati reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Litolff. The quick splash and shift of keys and textures certainly argue for the gymnastic abilities of our keyboard duo, Goldstone and Clemmow.
The big movement, the Roman god Jupiter, maintains its size and pungent extrovert nature: the festive content rather culminates in the hymn Thaxted that has such resplendent power in its orchestral guise, but here, too, rings with a solemnly dignified authority, vocal, even intimate. Holst took especial pride in his Saturn evocation, the asymmetrical bringer of old age, here in the form of alternated chords. If Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige seems a kindred spirit, the logic may be similar. The music crescendos in the keyboard version with a potent luminosity that may provide consolation. Holst’s employment of the tritone interval appears in “The Magician” Uranus , a kind of scherzo in the manner of Dukas, invokes a Lisztian series of punctuated and syncopated scales that signify demonic laughter. Neptune , “The Mystic” reverts to the five-beat pattern of Mars , but here assuming a plastic aura, ethereal and pointillistic, a British version of Saint-Saens’ Aquarium . In lieu of the wordless women’s chorus, the recording engineers “detach” or “evaporate” the delicate keyboard tones of the shrouded, distant planet.
Recorded originally in 1996 for the Albany and Olympia labels, this reissue has a more than esoteric or pedantic value, serving as an insight into the composers’ vertical thinking.
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