Holst: The Planets - Albrecht

Holst: The Planets - Albrecht

Oehms Classics  OC 683

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Holst: The Planets Op. 32 (trans. Peter Sykes)

Hansjörg Albrecht (organ)

Gustav Holst’s most popular work is The Planets. The work is usually heard in a luxuriant orchestral instrumentation in the concert hall. The music is often used as a background to fantasy films or video-games. Interpreters of pop-music such as Sarah Brightman, Frank Zappa and Vangelis have also quoted parts of The Planets in their own pieces.

Hansjörg Albrecht shows us that it can also be done completely differently. At the St. Nikolai Organ in Kiel, he has put the seven individual pieces in the limelight no less bombastically and dramatically for the listener.

Of course, this recording is also a continuation of OehmsClassics’ series of organ transcriptions with Hansjörg Albrecht in SACD Sound, ensuring that the sound in your living room will be perfect.

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - July 31, 2013

Hearing Holst's 'The Planets' for the first time is usually a highly memorable experience. From the first performance of the complete 7 movement Suite, which took place in London on November 15, 1920 under the conductor-ship of Albert Coates, its popularity has reached the status of one of the best-known and loved compositions in classical music. The average listener thinks of it as a dazzling orchestral showcase, conveying a powerful range of emotions. However, the origin of 'The Planets' is somewhat more complex.

In 1895, Holst became deeply involved in Indian philosophy and religion, teaching himself Sanskrit so as to make his own translations of the Rig Veda, and this soon began to show in his compositions. Around the turn of the century, he also came under the thrall of astrology, of which he was reluctant to speak, though he admitted that casting horoscopes for his friends was a “pet vice of his.” Accounts of the alleged influence of our solar system's planetary wanderers on those people born under a planetary sign intrigued him greatly, and in 1914 he began a 7 movement suite reflecting this. He consulted many books by Alan Leo, a famous astrologer and a contemporary of the composer. Leo's 'The Art of Synthesis' became a primary source of inspiration in his composition of what Holst came to call 'The Planets'.

Holst was most emphatic that the new piece was not based on Astronomy, nor did it concern the attributes of ancient gods who took planetary names. Instead, his goal with The Planets' was to come up with a musical metaphor for each planet, connecting the astrological significance of the planet to
human life in some way. The first clue to human importance is in the order of the movements. Their arrangement would have been geocentric if the moon began the piece and was followed by Venus and then Mars. Nor were they heliocentric as the sun and Mercury are not at the beginning. Instead, using Leo’s 'The Art of Synthesis', which dedicates a chapter to each planet and describes the supposed tendencies and characteristics of people born during each particular planet’s "ruling time" of the year. Holst came up with an order which tells an astrological story of the journey through life. Realising this, one sees how superfluous are the various attempts to add a further movement to his composition (Pluto, not discovered until 1930, and now demoted from planet-hood).

Because of neuritis in his right arm, which made it difficult for him to try out on the piano as he composed when working on a full orchestral score, the first version of 'The Planets' was scored for two pianos, with 'Neptune' also scored for organ to test some of the instrumental colours which Holst had in mind from the start. The final stage of the work, finished in 1918, was the full orchestral score, remarkably more imaginative and ambitious than any of his prior works.

Around the end of the C19th, the production of transcriptions and arrangements was a fertile industry for disseminating new compositions to a wide public than large concert halls. Transcriptions were made for solo piano, wind bands, brass bands and bands with various kinds of choruses. None was made for organ at the time, as most organists thought it would be unplayable even on a very large organ. Not until around 2006 did a full transcription arise, from the highly-respected American organist Peter Sykes, oddly an expert in early music. He used Holst's two-piano and 'Neptune' organ scores, as well as the orchestral version. The result was recorded by him on a splendid red book CD (which is sadly now rather difficult to obtain) with very good sonics, using the large Skinner organ at Girard College Chapel in Philadelphia.

Hansjörg Albrecht, a splendid organist who has produced some superb SA-CDs for OEHMS, has gone further than Skinner, using two organs. St Nikolai church in Kiel has a large 48-rank Kleuker organ from 1965 and a 17-rank Aristide Cavaillé-Coll/Charles Mutin organ, sited at either end of the nave. They are so depicted in the OEHMS 5.1 channel recording, with, I assume the higher-powered Kleuker in the front channels with smaller Cavaillé-Coll from the surround speakers, although the very ample resonant space of the church melds all the sounds into a sensational surround-sound experience.

Hearing these two organs in 'The Planets' is a quite a stunning musical and auditory experience. The huge dynamic range and range of instrumental colour is staggering. Use of the two organs was facilitated by a fairly recent electrification of the consoles, a single console now being able to play both organs simultaneously. This transcription requires technical skills beyond the norm, in having to play on three manuals at once, manage rapid registry changes and pull combination stops, use the pedal board and operate the swell box, amongst many other considerations such as page-turning. Sykes warns in the published score for his transcription that an assistant will be required (his wife helped out in his recording). I haven't been able to find a reference to player assistance in the OEHMS booklet, but the back insert photograph shows Albrecht at a formidable 6 manual console.

I could write a good deal about the astonishing way in which Albrecht husbands and blends all the resources of his two organs, often sounding like that of a full, real symphony orchestra, at others to truly justify the notion of the organ itself as truly the King of Instruments. Each movement, described imaginatively by Albrecht, is given the character traits Holst gleaned from Leo's book, and the whole work has the sweep and progression intended by his particular ordering of the seven movements.

While listening for the first time, I found Albrecht's tempi worked superbly well, but when comparing the timings with Holst's own conducting of the piece I found that they were all notably slower (even for orchestral versions, Holst was much faster than general tempi of present-day recordings). While it is very clear that Albrecht is enjoying having a fast-response French articulation on hand, he has obviously had to take into the consideration the very considerable resonance of St Nikolai Church, so that for most movements his tempi are up to two minutes slower than those of the crisp Holst reading.

Only for a few moments did I feel that Albrecht was rather lingering on the slow musings of Saturn or Neptune, but this was swept away for me by this impeccable legato and subtle nuancing of their sliding, interlocking harmonies, clad in beautiful and often exquisite soft flute registers. Listen to the wonderfully articulated upward sweep of scales near the end of Mars, which sounds like flurry of birds taking off - breath-taking! For those organ buffs with penchants to hear 32' pipes with their sub-woofers, there are some exquisite soft playing passages from the depths (perhaps the recently installed 32' bassoon rank) as well as some utterly terrifying blasts from others. For the very soft registrations (down to one rank) you will need a listening environment with low ambient noise. And for the plein jeu (full organ) with its soaring and searing reed choruses, you might be worrying about your speaker fuses.

The stereo recording is superbly balanced, but the multichannel track will take you not just into a new world, but into all Holst's, Sykes and Albrecht's seven wonderful worlds. But do wait until the neighbours have gone out; then you can really let your system loose. Used in the proper sense, I'm saying this disc is awesome.

Even if you are not an organ buff, please do have a listen to this gloriously recorded tour-de-force interpretation of the malleable 'Planets'. It will enhance your respect of the orchestral version and complements the usual version very well, giving greater understanding of Holst's philosophical, mystic and sometimes erotic work. I would even go as far as saying that at times the organ version is better.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and


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