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Holst choral SOMMCD279
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Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
I Vow to Thee, My Country – the complete sacred choral music of Gustav Holst
Joshua Ryan (organ), Richard Horne (tubular bells)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London, UK

Another valuable and indeed unique collection of music from SOMM. For admirers of Gustav Holst’s music it is a consistent frustration that his wider fame rests on a handful of – if not a single – work. This generously filled (76:19) CD is a case in point. Few if any of the works here will be at all familiar excepting I vow to Thee, My Country and Louis Bourgeois’ tune to – if not Holst’s arrangement – All people that on Earth do dwell. Five of the works given here – including three of the four Festival Choruses – are indicated as being first recordings although since these are also works arranged for this disc by Iain Farrington I suspect it is the arrangement rather than the music itself appearing on disc for the first time.

In recent years the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea under their director William Vann have produced several truly excellent discs. Those on the Albion label celebrating the music of Holst’s life-long friend Ralph Vaughan Williams have proved to be especially rewarding. Given that friendship, it seems apt that they have now turned their creative gaze on Holst’s work which they perform with a similarly high level of technical excellence and musical sensitivity. The twenty female and male voices of the choir sound youthful and fresh-voiced and sing both the complex part-writing or the simple unison hymns with equal flair. The liner states that this disc is “the first to include all Holst’s sacred music”. There is one important caveat to that as none of the composer’s Christmas music is included – of which he wrote quite a lot. Neatly, EM records released a disc entitled Alpha And Omega: Gustav Holst Christmas Music (review) which covers all the music this new disc does not, so the two discs can be seen as directly complementary.

The disc opens with Holst’s only setting of part of the Anglican service – the Nunc Dimittis of 1915. This is a demanding 8-part setting which has echoes of the Tudor church music so beloved of Vaughan Williams. This is a tremendous opening to the disc emerging from darkness to a visionary ecstatic climax – it is one of those works that “feels” bigger than its 3:29 timeframe would suggest. The power of this work has not gone unnoticed by other performers – Hilary Davan Wetton’s Holst Singers performed it on a Hyperion disc. The same conductor performed the work as a filler on the EM records performance of The Coming of Christ. Listening back to both versions for comparison’s sake it struck me that Davan Wetton has favoured a beautifully blended vocal style that sacrifices the visionary blaze Vann achieves in favour of a more carefully moulded style. In this instance I prefer Vann. Next is a late – 1931 – hymn included in Hymns of Praise for congregational use. I do not remember ever having heard this melody or Robert Bridges’ words. It has a sturdy striding manner well performed here with verses alternating with organ accompaniment (ideally balanced) and/or unison or harmonised choral writing.

The two psalm settings; Psalms 86 and 148 are relatively familiar with Psalm 86 the single longest work on the disc at 8:35. Joshua Ryan’s organ accompaniments are excellent throughout the disc with judicious registrations and sensitive playing supporting the singers at all times. That said, I probably prefer the strings and organ version of these works. Hard not to hear how Imogen Holst is able to make much more expressively of the opening gesture in its string orchestra form than the organ here. Likewise the following stalking bass-line pizzicato is such a typical Holstian fingerprint that simply sounds more effective in that form. But with that said I cannot fault the performance here. Again what is striking is Holst’s use of a kind of monody that seems to echo both ancient plainsong and also the melodic outlines of Eastern scales. These are the kind of works that show Holst at his austerely finest – a world away from the sweeping grandeur of The Planets. This sense of concentrated, focussed expression is emphasised by the intimate scale of these performances and very effective they are too. Solos are well taken from within the choir – for Richard Hickox, John Mark Ainsley was luxuriously cast for the brief tenor interjections but Vann’s Matthew Long is more obviously singing within a church tradition to good effect.

For the setting of Psalm 148 Holst again takes a pre-existing tune. The liner mentions “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” as the more familiar use of this melody although I remember it as “All creatures of our God and King”. Again Vann’s performance is excellent at giving this a distinctly ‘church’ ambience – the gently spiralling “alleluias” both effortless and ecstatic. The modulation to the male voice verse always has a slightly theatrical feel. This is not quite the through composed genius of Psalm 86 as Holst’s use of compositional tricks of modulation, canonic writing and the rest although exciting and dramatic can sound a degree contrived. The 1925 setting Herrick’s In this World, the isle of Dreams was written for inclusion in a new hymnal Songs of Praise. As such it is a quite straight forward setting again attractively sung. My only query is that according to Holst biographer Michael Short this is one of four hymns he wrote for this publication. The other three; Onward Christian Soldiers!, Valiant Hearts and I sought thee round about, O thou my God do not appear to have been included in this “complete” survey? Christ Hath a Garden which is on this disc was also written for this same hymnal but music editor Vaughan Williams opted to keep the original tune.

This is followed by one of Holst’s earliest anthem settings; Now Unto Us, O Lord dating from the 1890’s. It appears that this was never performed during Holst’s lifetime with the premiere waiting until 2020 by the same artists as on this disc. The innocent ear might be hard pushed to recognise this Holst but the part writing is flowing and attractive and there are hints at the kind of walking bass lines that would become such a feature in later works although there is a kind of late Victorian melodrama to the setting that you imagine would have made the mature Holst flinch at such “sins of his youth”. Sensibly Vann and his choir do not shirk these moments instead celebrating the energetic if unsubtle writing. Our Blest Redeemer was another contribution to a general publication – here the 1919 Public School Hymn Book. Again interestingly this setting is simpler and indeed more austere than one imagines your average public school attendee might expect. The technical and spiritual distance travelled between this work and the preceding anthem – even in the modest framework of a brief sacred work for general use is marked.

Holst enthusiasts will know the Short Festival Te Deum from the dramatic orchestral version with large choir performed by Sir Charles Groves and the LPO and LSO chorus on EMI. The version here with a new organ accompaniment by Iain Farrington – not sanctioned by Holst who made a note in the score that the work was; “not intended for performance with organ”. The performance here has a bright dancing energy with Holst’s choral part writing wonderfully clear and dynamic. Certainly musically and in terms of production choice the organ part is set back in the church acoustic. Obviously in terms of sheer scale and number of performers Groves could not be more different than Vann – to the point that they ‘feel’ like completely different works and as such can be enjoyed on their own terms. The following From Glory to Glory Advancing is another hymn. Andrew Neill in his liner mistakenly dates this from 1925 due to its inclusion in Songs of Praise. Short lists this as one of the hymns Holst wrote for the 1906 English Hymnal that was retained by Vaughan Williams in the 1926 publication. I do not know who is correct but by ear alone it certainly sounds like an earlier work – a more foursquare melody with less harmonic or melodic ambiguity. Robert Bridges provided the words again for the 1927 Man Born to Toil, an anthem written and the following Eternal Father (again setting Bridges) novelly include a part for bass bells. Both of these are very attractive – both were new to me and the type of music I was hoping to discover through this disc. Soprano Eloise Irving takes the solo in the latter attractively which features a typically twisting Holst melody. Later in the setting the female voices are distantly placed singing ‘alleluia’ while the men repeat the opening lines. This effect is quite beautifully achieved here both musically and in production terms with the distant alleluias blending and blurring in the church acoustic - a magical effect. By Weary Stages the Old World Ages is an excerpt Holst has taken from the same The Coming of Christ mentioned above. There it forms part of the final scene. Vann, with a slightly more flowing tempo and a subtle use of rubato mimics more of the plainsong style that I am sure Holst sought. Davan-Wetton’s choir sings beautifully but rather straight and literally so any implied suppleness in the musical line is lost.

Christ hath a Garden is the setting mentioned above that Vaughan Williams rejected and it is another fine example of the concentrated simplicity that Holst achieved later in his compositional life. The eight-part setting for female voices only of the Ave Maria from 1901 is one of the more interesting of the early settings. Apparently Vaughan Williams was impressed and certainly this has an individual chromatic lushness that is unusual in Holst’s music at this time. Its complexity probably places it beyond the reach of most Church groups or generally amateur choirs. The ladies of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea sing this with simple purity and poise which sounds exactly right. I vow to thee my Country which is of course the “big tune” from Jupiter in The Planets jostles with Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem as an enduring national song so it is hard to assess a performance in isolation. This was another tune included in the 1925 Songs of Praise and as the liner says the essential statement of faith it contains has become rather overshadowed by its patriotic associations. I must admit I have always preferred it in its original orchestral garb and fine though the performance here is I have not changed my mind.

The disc is completed by the Four Festival Choruses – although this as a title does not seem to exist in Holst’s catalogue. Numbers 1, 3 and 4 are listed by Short as the Three Festival Choruses and it is those three for which Iain Farringdon has supplied new organ accompaniments. The fourth chorus (No 2 as performed here) is more of an arrangement of The Old Hundreth – All people that on Earth do dwell. The Stainer & Bell score viewable on IMSLP is dated 1920 with the score marked as being for Chorus, organ and orchestra. Here Joshua Ryan plays the organ only reduction very nimbly and the result is a very enjoyable very Bachian pastiche that no-one would ever identify as by Holst. The three actual festival choruses are a suitably celebratory end to this recital. A Festival Chime – replete with more tubular bells - sets words by Clifford Bax (the composer’s brother) to the Welsh tune St. Denio which I know to the words “Immortal, invisible, God only wise.” Vann chooses an attractive tempo that allows the melody to lilt into a graceful compound time. I did find the bells a bit anachronistic – rather like a town hall clock! The two closing choruses – Let all mortal flesh keep silence and Turn Back O Man are richer and more complex creations and a fitting conclusion to this diverse but rewarding recital. The former builds from a solo soprano to a series of powerful and unexpected modulations for the full choir. The concluding Turn Back O Man is again to words by Clifford Bax and features Holst’s favoured stalking bass lines. Here Holst also incorporates the well-known Old 124th and it brings the disc to a positive and powerful end.

This is an excellent survey – very well performed, well engineered and presented with SOMM’s usual quality liner which includes all texts in English only. The range of music and styles is interesting from simple and direct hymn settings to demanding multi-part anthems. Probably Holst’s greatest music for chorus – either a capella or accompanied – lies elsewhere with his Rig Veda settings pre-eminent. But this disc does fill important and useful gaps in available knowledge of this important composer. I like very much the performing style of William Vann and his Royal Hospital Choir. They are a very accomplished group but at the same time the sound they make has the authentic ring of an Anglican church choir. A rewarding and valuable disc.

Nick Barnard
Nunc Dimittis (1915)
Gird on thy sword (1931)
Two Psalms (1912): Psalm 86, Psalm 148
In this World, the isle of Dreams (c. 1925)
Not Unto Us, O Lord (c. 1893-96)
Our Blest Redeemer (1919)
Short Festival Te Deum (1919)
From Glory to Glory Advancing (c. 1905)
Man Born to Toil (1927)
Eternal Father (1927)
By Weary Stages the Old World Ages (1927)
Christ hath a Garden (1928)
Ave Maria (1894)
I Vow to Thee, My Country (c.1918)
Four Festival Choruses:
A Festival Chorus (1916)
All People that on Earth do Dwell (c. 1916-19)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (1916)
Turn Back, O Man (1916)

Published: November 28, 2022

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