Holst: The Planets; Simon Johnson plays the Organ of St Paul’s Cathedral

The Planets (arr. Sykes); St Paul’s Suite (arr. Johnson)

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COMPOSERS: Holst
LABELS: Priory
ALBUM TITLE: Holst
WORKS: The Planets (arr. Sykes); St Paul’s Suite (arr. Johnson)
PERFORMER: Simon Johnson (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: PRCD 1144

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Although The Planets is a famously brilliant showpiece for large orchestra, transcriptions can be illuminating. Peter Sykes’s organ arrangement, rather like Holst’s two-piano version, effectively highlights the work’s dissonant harmonies. As performed by Simon Johnson on the Grand Organ of St Paul’s Cathedral, with its generous acoustic, ‘Mars’ sounds exceptionally ferocious. Almost as impressive are ‘Saturn’, its climax even more inexorable than the orchestral original and all the more horrifying; and ‘Uranus’, sounding especially sinister for its combination of musical hall japes – including mechanical organ allusions – with menacing diablery. Yet much of the work does not fall naturally into the organ’s style, or suffers from poor approximation of particular instrumental colours. The organ’s ‘dweeby’-sounding flutes reduce ‘Venus’ to tawdry sentimentality. ‘Jupiter’ loses much of its colour and – given the inevitable limitations of a solo organist – much of its bubbling textures, and so sounds clumsily written and vulgar.

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The St Paul’s Suite, transcribed by Johnson, is a similarly mixed bag – effective when the music is playfully contrapuntal, less successful in translating string tuttis. Daniel Jaffé