Oxford May Music has been fusing arts and science for six years now. Thursday’s concert was evidence of this interdisciplinary ethos. Themed around “The Planets”, the evening combined a two-piano version of Gustav Holst’s suite with a talk by physicist Brian Cox. The star of a number of radio and television programmes, Cox’s presence clearly played a major part in filling Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre (with a seating capacity of 900 people).

Brian Cox
Brian Cox

Brian Cox’s lecture examined ideas of the solar system in Holst’s time, contrasting them with contemporary research. He projected pictures from telescopes and probes, comparing environmental conditions from celestial bodies across the solar system. Schoolchildren and adults alike were engrossed in the talk, with both parties flocking out of the theatre in the interval in the hope of an autograph.

Cox’s talk explored the sheer vastness of the cosmos, and a sense of wonder at the possibilities still to be explored. Although Holst would not have been aware of the extent of the universe when composing The Planets (his generation were unaware that more than one galaxy existed: the actual figure is round about 350 billion galaxies), his suite still conveys a sense of wonder at the distant mysteries held in space.

During the course of the interval, the emphasis of the evening changed from astronomy to astrology. In contrast to Brian Cox’s scientific overview of the solar system in the first half of the evening, Holst’s suite aimed to depict the ideas and emotions inspired by the planets. Although it was first composed for two pianos, The Planets is rarely heard in this form. The suite is clearly orchestral in conception: the two piano version sounds bare by comparison, overshadowed by Holst’s kaleidoscopic orchestral sonorities. However, this medium adds pungency to Holst’s dissonant harmonies to great effect.

The performance of The Planets given by Katya Apekisheva and Ashley Wass was intimate and contemplative, conveying a sense of mystery and distance. They particularly suited the more introspective movements, deploying a range of tone colours which captured the fantastical nature of Holst’s vision.

I had expected “Mars” to work especially well in the two-piano arrangements (given the percussive potential of the instruments), but the performance given by Apekisheva and Wass seemed slightly unsettled. The articulation lacked crispness: vital in order to produce the requisite tension. Instead of building to climaxes, they seemed to suddenly arrive unforeseen: a tactic which worked well in certain situations, but at other times a broader canvas was required. Although the sinuous chromatic lines in the centre of the movement worked well, I found myself wanting more of this ominous mood.

The lyricism of “Venus” saw Apekisheva and Wass more at home. From the beautiful harp-like sonority at the start of the movement, the audience were immersed into an idealised fantasy realm. The textural imbalances of “Mars” were rectified here, with a hint of rubato lending the melody buoyancy over the ethereal parallel chords. ‘Mercury’ needed a touch more delicacy, but a few slightly blurred pieces of passagework did not impede the movement’s sense of playfulness!

The opening of “Jupiter” was boisterous, bustling and jovial, with the surrounding filigree figures fleet-of-foot. Apekisheva and Wass maintained the sense of movement into the middle part of the movement (which Holst later adapted as a hymn tune, “Thaxted”). This was greatly effective, lending the section sincerity and simplicity, and there were certainly a few damp eyes in the Sheldonian.

The performers lent pathos to the quietly resigned “Saturn”, maintaining a sense of suspension and carrying the listener into the Elysian distance on seemingly endless ostinati. The frenetic energy of “Uranus” interrupted this peace. The performers maintained a dynamic dialogue, scattered with punchy accents.

Holst expressed his dissatisfaction for the performance of “Neptune” on keyboard instruments, even complaining that transferring the movement to organ duet was not successful. However, Apekisheva and Wass gave a convincing performance, conjuring up the idea of Holst’s distant vision through gossamer-like passagework and a range of tone colours.

Apekisheva and Wass came into their own in the pensive movements of The Planets, imbuing them with delicacy and mystery. Their performance captured the sense of wonder conveyed by Brian Cox earlier in the evening, and showed that there is much to be said for the two-piano version of this popular piece.