Piano Duo Tackles Holst’s Planets with Sensitivity and Brilliance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Mozart, Holst: Huw Watkins and Tom Poster (pianos), Gustav Holst Birthday Concert, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 21.9.2014. (RJ)

Benjamin Britten: Mazurka Elegiaca Op 23 No 2
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in D for two pianos K448
Gustav Holst: Suite: The Planets for two pianos


This year it is particularly appropriate that Holst’s most famous work, The Planets, should be given  prominence, since he began the work 100 years ago just before the outbreak of the First World War. Most people are familiar with the orchestral version which has received plenty of exposure this year, but this recital afforded an opportunity to hear the original piano version  which he used as an aid when working on the orchestral score. It appears that two of Holst’s teaching colleagues at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith,  Vally Lasker and Nora Day, played the piano version through for the young Adrian Boult who was to undertake the first orchestral performance in  1918.

 These two ladies must have been formidable pianists to judge from this performance by Huw Watkins and Tom Poster, both of whom have garnered accolades for the brilliance of their piano playing.  And far from being a shadow of the orchestral suite, the two-piano version is an important piece in its own right shedding new light on the work by bringing greater clarity to some of the sonorities and overtones that can be obscured in orchestral performances.

 Mars, The Bringer of War was every bit as terrifying in the hands of this duo as it is played by a large orchestra as they pounded on the lower register of the keyboards bringing out the savage dissonances and apocalyptic energies of this movement. After this they moved to the upper register for a blissfully quiet opening to Venus, The Bringer of Peace, which beguiled the  ear with its dreamy, romantic tone and delicate pianissimos. Initially Poster and Watkins brought out the playfulness of Mercury, The Winged Messenger, developing a greater intensity as the music progressed. The balance seemed to go a little awry in the early stages of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, but this was just a blip and the duo were soon playing as one once more.

 Their interpretation of Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age was a revelation. I often shiver when I hear the hear the icy opening to the orchestral version which presents old age as a unwelcoming phenomenon – a time to dread. By the comparison the piano version felt much more tender – even comforting – in tone; my neighbour mentioned that Holst’s aim had been “tender austerity”. Later on I seemed to detect a peal of bells bringing old age to its close, a feature which is less apparent in the orchestral version. The pianists were full of brilliant technical tricks in Uranus, The Magician, but their bounce subsided in Neptune with its telling harmonies which gave the movement a special poignancy. I had not expected to experience such a range of colour and variety as they brought to the work which made the piano version of The Planets every bit as absorbing and thrilling as its orchestral equivalent.

 Huw Watkins and Tom Poster had also sprung two surprises in the first part of their afternoon concert.  Britten only wrote two pieces for two pianos – as a result of an error in transcribing a cable sent to him. Designed as a tribute to the Polish statesman-musician Paderewski the  second of the two mazurkas reflects with great sensitivity the plight of the Polish people during the Second World War with many allusions to the music of Chopin.

 The duo also played the only sonata Mozart composed for two pianos, the K448,  which had a definite orchestral feel in the two outer movements making one regret he never attempted more of the same. They gave an ebullient account of the first movement and finale and made the most of the delicate and appealing melody at the heart of the piece.  I hope we shall hear more collaborations between this brilliant and evenly matched pair of virtuosi.

 Roger Jones

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