Gustav Holst: The Planets


Gustav Holst: The Planets, David Rubinstein, piano
Musicus Recordings 1011

Classical pianists may reach a certain point, if they’re immensely talented (and hard working), where all they’ve learned about music coalesces into a broad, deeply grounded comprehension that’s more than the sum of its parts, an understanding that elevates their playing to an extraordinary mastery of their instrument and repertoire. One may not be able to describe the experience in any adequate detail, but one knows it when one hears it, and no amount of keyboard pyrotechnics or critical hoopla can substitute for it.

David Rubinstein was kind enough to send me three of his CDs and I am still in the process of getting to know his music making, getting more familiar with the particular technical and emotional choices he makes transitioning from one note to the next. But even at this preliminary stage, one thing is obvious: Mr Rubinstein has a rare prowess at the keyboard, combined with a rare clarity and confidence in his interpretation. I’ve heard, admired, reviewed, even corresponded with, a number of not-famous pianists published on not-well known labels. Many of them give heart-felt, unique, even wonderful performances. Many of them also have less than impeccable technique, a sense timing, dynamics and tone that doesn’t quite achieve perfection, and have what, for all I know, may be a subtle or unconscious fear of hitting the wrong note.

Mr Rubinstein suffers from none of these shortcomings. His technique might be described as in the tradition of the pianistic giants of the past century (like Claudio Arrau, with whom Rubinstein took master-classes). I don’t always understand his interpretations, but there is never doubt of their integrity nor the flawless technique with which they’re executed. He not only plays the instrument, he also thinks. Rubinstein is, in short, an awesome pianist.

In anticipating a review I was initially inclined to his In Recital No. 3 disc because of the Haydn sonata in D (Hob. XVI:19) with which it commences. I love this performance. It makes me want to dance on the front lawn at midnight to celebrate the role of culture in human destiny. Indeed, I had written a page and a half of that review when another the discs unexpectedly grabbed my attention, Gustav Holst’s ubiquitous and inevitable chestnut, The Planets, a piece of music I have always disliked and found programmatically insipid.

I was going to simply ignore this CD, but for some reason I broke open the wrapper and played it. Now, I haven’t heard Holst’s own two-piano version so I can’t comment on it, but Rubinstein’s solo transcription is entirely more satisfactory than the orchestral version. Ironic that I should feel this way when Rubinstein admits to being (as I once was) a purist. Thankfully, he overcame his reservations and has given us a generous, highly original and quite extraordinary version of this music.

Did Holst compose The Planets on a piano, orchestrate the piano score, then reduce that version to a two-piano score? Or was the two-piano version original and did Holst later orchestrate that? No idea. Glenn Gould’s Wagner transcriptions seem apposite. Gould liked Wagner. I, on the other hand, have always been accordant to Mark Twain’s judgment that Wagner’s music is a lot better than it sounds. But despite this near-antipathy on my part, I liked Gould’s piano versions right away, I own the CD, and I even play it once in awhile. So, no, I am not a purist any more. I do wonder if anyone else has had reservations about Holst’s final version, if anyone else has thought to themselves, What this music needs is a better orchestration.

I was pleased to discover that David Rubinstein has posted the entire Planets suite on YouTube ( Watching a pianist’s hands in performance has always fascinated me. It doesn’t prove anything that a pianist is economical or flamboyant; there have been giants of both ilks. But I’ve always gravitated to the relaxed, restrained, non-gestural sort of piano player, probably because the emergence of superb music from so little physical work is doubly amazing. I remember seeing Abbey Simon at the College of the Palisades and saying to my girlfriend, How can so little effort make so much perfect music?  Watching Mr Rubinstein performing his transcription of Holst produced much the same effect.

russell lichter