GUSTAV HOLST-PETER SYKES: The Planets – Hansjörg Albrecht, pipe organ – Oehms multichannel SACD OC 683, 60:08 [Distr. by Naxos] (1/31/12) *****:
Many years ago I was associated with Crystal Clear Records, and they released a direct disc of someone playing his own transcription of The Planets on a pipe organ installed in a pizza parlor in San Francisco. I couldn’t find it in my direct disc collection, so evidently I chucked it in the past due to its low level of musicality. This transcription by Peter Sykes and performance by organist Hansjörg Albrecht is a huge improvement, and may in fact be preferable to many listeners vs. the now-hackneyed Holst orchestral original, which has become an over-worked item on a level with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
The organ is a Cavaille-Coll-Mutin in the cathedral of St. Nikolai in Kiel, Germany, and this is just one of a series of organ SACDs Albrecht has done for the Oehms label, including one disc of highlights from Wagner’ Ring Cycle and another of concertos for keyboard instruments by Poulenc. The variety and diversity of Holst’s musical creations for seven of the planets seem to stand out more clearly in the organ arrangements than they did for full orchestra. (There’s no concern about Pluto’s recent downgrade, because Holst never did one for Pluto.) It might even appeal to listeners who are normally averse to pipe organ. Albrecht’s interesting notes on each of the movements frequently make reference to works by other composers which have some similarity to the particular planet’s movement by Holst. For example, I would have never thought of Philip Glass having any connection with the Venus movement, but listening closely to the last part of it, I can understand the reference. Albrecht points out that Holst as at rehearsals of The Rite of Spring and Firebird, and knew of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, so he wasn’t averse to new music influences in the creation of The Planets.
He likens the pounding, militaristic qualities of Mars with Shostakovich’s sounds of the Fascist army in his war symphonies, or the music for the human-subjugating machine in the score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The chorale-like effects in Holst’s loudest movement—Saturn—are beautifully conveyed in the organ transcription, and although I always enjoy the vocalese choir in the longest, final movement of the orchestral original—Neptune—the organ version is effective without it, conjuring up the boldest and most mystical of Holst’s planets. Albrecht draws similarities to Scriabin and Debussy’s Nocturnes (with its vocalese chorus) in the notes for this movement.
The church has a long reverberation which supports not only the spaciness of this particular movement but all the sections of the Holst transcription. Organ music is a whole different experience in the excellent hi-res surround provided by Oehms. (That also goes for binaural headphone recordings of pipe organ, of which there have been a few.)
A 10-year anniversary of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society gets a welcome vinyl upgrade.