I have previously commented in these pages that I have a high regard for transcriptions to the organ when they are well crafted and sensitively performed, even though they no longer serve the purpose of making a representation of orchestral works available to audiences that did not have access to concert halls or to recordings. Sykes’ transcription of The Planets is an exceptionally fine example of the genre; it has already become, for me, as much a companion to the orchestral original as the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is to the piano solo original. Sykes has the sense and taste not to follow the original orchestration slavishly, but to use the colors of the “symphonic organ” as a palette for an idiomatic transfer that maintains the sonic spirit of the original - and he does so with amazing imagination.
Sykes recorded his technically dazzling transcription at the last large essentially intact E. M. Skinner (1931-33) found at Girard College in Philadelphia, an inspired choice for this project. The stoplist shows a typical eight-foot organ of the time, but with enough upperwork (and complement of super couplers) to provide plenty of brilliance. Mars has power and drive; Venus brings gentility and light; Mercury sparkles. Jupiter is a masterful rendering of Holst's conception with thrilling 32-foot glories. (When someone's actually suggested to me that, in The Planets, “AAM members would at least recognize ‘I vow to thee, my country’, I replied that I think all of us have a reasonable knowledge of musical literature outside the organ and choral area. On the other hand, I do feel like cheering for an old friend when Sykes brings in the Thaxted theme with radiance.) By the time we reach Neptune, the complexity of the original scoring has reached the point that two fully engaged players are required, and the aural result is truly stunning, particularly as the softer dynamic level allows the range of colors to shine through. Alas, poor Pluto - not discovered until 17 years after Holst's work and recently demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” - this leaves The Planets consisting now, as it did in 1916, of all the wandering stars of antiquity together with the two more recently discovered.
Sykes provides an incisive discussion of making the transcription and the liner also offers extensive articles on the chapel and the organ. The full stoplist is followed by a biography of the performers with an overhead photo showing there almost contortionist work together. The enormously wide dynamic range and the live Girard acoustic are faithfully captured by Edward J. Kelly’s engineering. This impressive - and fun - recording is not to be missed; I am confident that Holst would have loved it.
Victor Hill, Ph.D.