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Holst, J S Bach and Britten: Justin Lavender (tenor). Timothy Bentinck (narrator), Trebles from the Westminster Under School Boys’ Choir (Edouard Favre–Gilly, James Bertlin, Tom Philips and James Plaut) (Director of Music: Jeremy Walker), Timothy End and Chris Hopklins (piano), Stephen Farr (organ), St Paul’s Girls School Chamber Choir (Director of Music: Yat–Soon Yeo), City of London Choir (Musical Director: Hilary Davan Wetton), London Mozart Players, Hilary Davan Wetton, St John’s, Smith Square, London, 21.11.2010 (BBr)

Holst: Two Psalms (1912)

J S Bach: Chorale-Prelude In dulci jubilo
Holst: The Coming of Christ (1927) (London première)
Britten: Cantata St Nicolas, op.42 (1948)

It’s hard to believe that a major work by Gustav Holst is only now receiving its London première but The Coming of Christ seems not to have been given since its first performances at Canterbury Cathedral in 1927. The Very Rev George Bell was Dean of Canterbury Cathedral from 1925 to 1929, founded the Canterbury Festival and wanted to revive the mediaeval tradition of religious dramas which led him to invite John Masefield – soon to become Poet Laureate – and Holst to create The Coming of Christ, a play with incidental music. What we had tonight was a performance of Holst’s complete score – about 24 minutes in duration – with a linking narration, adapted by Fern Dickson, based on Masefield’s text.

Scored for soloists, chorus and a small orchestra of strings, trumpet, organ and piano, this is Holst moving towards the simplified style he sought towards the end of his life, and which he achieved, with such epic effortlessness, in his masterpiece
Egdon Heath, and the Humbert Wolfe Songs. Certainly the short pieces which make up this work are terse and to the point, not a note is wasted, and he conveys the urgency and grandeur of the event with the simplest of gestures and language. Quite why this work has languished in obscurity for so long is a mystery to me for it is very approachable and makes an appealing addition to the few great works which are heard every Christmas. The City of London Choir did Holst proud tonight, with their vibrant advocacy which conveyed their obvious delight in the music. It’s always difficult finding exactly the right voice for a speaking part, in a musical work, but the choice of Timothy Bentinck (12th Earl of Portland, 8th Count Bentinck und Waldeck Limpurg, David Archer in the BBC Radio 4 serial The Archers and the voice of “Mind the Gap” on London Underground’s Piccadilly Line) was an inspired one and he proved to be perfect – his quiet authority being most welcome in the storytelling. Overall, this was an occasion to be relished and the City of London Choir is to be applauded – as it was, for over 2 minutes! – for giving us this opportunity to hear this wonderful music. It was preceded by Stephen Farr playing J S Bach’s Chorale-Prelude In dulci jubilo, as requested by Holst.

The neglect of Holst’s earlier Two Psalms is equally mystifying. These delicate, unpretentious, settings, for chorus with organ and strings, are full of good things and show Holst at his best; writing music of praise which is a joy both to sing and to hear. The first is mystical and the second exuberant, and the choir responded to both with, by turns, singing of quiet ecstasy and jubilant exuberance. In both Holst works soloists from the chorus gave solid and distinguished performances.

There are some who believe that Benjamin Britten was a bit too clever for his own good – a machine who could turn out music like a cow giving milk. Certainly he had a facility which allowed him to know just how to write a piece and when it would be ready – I remember hearing Imogen Holst say that on the first day of composition of an opera he announced that Act 1 would be completed on a certain date, and it was! – and occasionally one feels that he is simply going through the motions of composition rather than actually composing.
St Nicholas is, I feel, an example of Britten doing what he could without really engaging his musical brain, but it is a piece which works well in performance, and is pleasing and rewarding to perform, but there’s too little real music in the piece, and far too much banality – The Birth of Nicholas, He journeys to Palestine and Nicholas and the Pickled Boys being especially cringe–inducing. If only Britten had built on the strengths of the opening movement, with its angular, and tortured, violin line, we might have had a better work, rather than a piece of rather negligible Gebrauchsmusik. Using all the forces in the hall, the four trebles, as the baby Nicholas and the Pickled Boys were excellent, the small, but significant, contribution from the St Paul’s Girls School Chamber Choir, placed in the gallery, was most welcome, and with Justin Lavender a fine soloist, totally in command of the music, and delivering a muscular and insightful account of his part – it’s good that we have now reached a point where it’s not obligatory for tenors singing Britten’s music to sound like Peter Pears – Davan Wetton directed a fine performance which raised the work onto a higher plain than that on which it actually resides.

But the evening was most memorable for the fine singing of the City of London Choir, and full praise to them and their director Hilary Davan Wetton for such an inspired programme.

Bob Briggs


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