Holst: The Planets (Organ Transcriptions By Peter Sykes)

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HOLST The Planets • Hansjörg Albrecht (org) • OEHMS 683 (SACD: 60:08) The story of this organ transcription of Gustav Holst’s iconic orchestral masterwork starts...

HOLST The Planets Hansjörg Albrecht (org) OEHMS 683 (SACD: 60:08)

The story of this organ transcription of Gustav Holst’s iconic orchestral masterwork starts with the duo-piano score—and perhaps an organ version of Neptune, the last movement—created by the composer to assist with orchestration. The keyboard original—a recording is available on Delos Facet—retains a surprising degree of the character of the eventual orchestral suite, and inspired, we are told, this organ version by renowned organist and period keyboard artist Peter Sykes. The transcription is extraordinary, conjuring up all of the color and intensity of Holst’s huge orchestral forces, and Sykes’s 1996 recording on Raven Records leaves one incredulous that anyone could surmount the many daunting technical challenges with just 10 fingers and two feet, and still create a compellingly musical performance of the work. And yet he does so, with little or no evidence of the compromises of pacing and flow usually associated with the sheer physical complexity of fingering, changing registration, adjusting the swell shades, and moving from one manual to another. The relative downside of the Sykes recording is the engineering with which, in truth, I have happily lived for years. It is very likely an accurate representation of the sound of the 100-plus-rank 1933 Ernest M. Skinner organ midway back in its Girard College, Philadelphia hall, but the (glorious) wash of sound produced in the louder sections does leave one guessing at the details.

Enter this new recording from the recording wizards at Oehms Classical. Recorded in the resonant spaces of the restored medieval Church of St. Nicholas in Kiel, Germany, it manages to be hugely powerful in the largest climaxes, while remaining transparent, detailed, and present in both the loudest and softest sections. This is particularly impressive as it can be assumed, since specifications for both are included in the notes, that both of the church’s two organs, located at opposite ends of the nave and playable from a single console, are being used. The 48-rank 1965 Detlef Kleuker organ is surely the lead instrument in the recording, as the 17-rank Aristide Cavaillé-Coll/Charles Mutin organ clearly does not have the pipes to produce such power. Currently lacking surround-sound reproduction, I cannot know if the engineers have clarified the issue of usage by placing the multichannel listener between the organs front and back as they did with the earlier Oehms Wagner: Der Ring—An Organ Transcription SACD produced in this venue. Yet in the end it does not matter, as the sound even in SACD stereo is so impressive and the organs are so well integrated that the effect is of a single instrument with breathtaking French symphonic articulation.

This new release pales in comparison to the earlier Sykes release only in matters of style. Hanjörg Albrecht, the organist in the aforementioned Wagner, as well as in a Poulenc release I lavishly praised in these pages (33:6), is in every way Sykes’s technical peer. What Sykes offers more consistently than Albrecht is not only the essential steak-and-kidney-pie Britishness of the thing, and its moments of wry humor, but also a telling subtlety of voicing. Albrecht is inclined to be a bit too stiff, as in the big tune of “Jupiter,” a bit too obvious in the misty domains of “Venus,” and to linger too long in the reflective passages of “Saturn” and “Neptune.” Still, absent the comparison, I suspect I would have overlooked it for the sheer brilliance of the playing.

And then, what a glorious sound he and his engineers produce. What a rush it must be to create these massive waves of sound, or these complex layers of counterpoint, from a single instrument. What a thrill it is to hear them so clearly. Sykes’s instrument is not so distinctly defined in space as this, though I was happy enough until I heard the new release. I would probably still choose Sykes’s recording if I could have only one. But I have both, and that is the best solution I can offer. Enjoy the sonic feast, and don’t leave it for just the organ buffs.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 31, 2012

  • UPC: 4260034866836

  • Catalog Number: OC683

  • Label: Oehms Classics

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Gustav Holst

  • Performer: Hansjörg Albrecht