> HOLST Choral Symphony, Choral fantasia CDH55104 [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
A Choral Fantasia (1930) [18.17]
First Choral Symphony (1925) [49.03]
Lynne Dawson (sop)
John Birch (organ)
Guildford Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
rec Guildford Cathedral (Fantasia) and Henry Wood Hall, London, 21, 22, 28 March 1993
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55104 [67.36] Bargain Price


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Hyperion's policy of ranging back over their dormant back catalogue and reissuing material at bargain price has surely benefited both the company and the music enthusiast.

Holst's Choral Fantasia sets Robert Bridges' 'Ode to Music' for soprano solo, chorus, organ and orchestra. The words must have resonated emotively among the audience at the Gloucester Cathedral premiere in 1930. Those words include 'Rejoice ye dead, where'er your spirits dwell / Rejoice that yet on earth your fame is bright.' Whether or not the composer intended it the words would have spoken with comfort to generations bereaved by a war that had finished just over a decade previously. Death is a theme discernible in various Holst works including Savitri, The Two Veterans Ode (a Whitman setting), The Ode to Death and, of course, in Saturn from The Planets. Lynne Dawson's voice is admirably free of vibrato despite an extremely testing role. This is a work of ice and chill flames as is so often the case with Holst. In the Ode to Death the music has a warming consoling undertow. That consolation is subsumed in the Fantasia.

The Choral Symphony sets fulsomely poetic words by Keats and it is essential that the words are treated with respect and not fogged by the generalised mist of a big choral group. Here diction is excellent. The Guildford Choral Society had already proved their mettle for Lyrita Recorded Edition and Vernon Handley (LP only SRCS75) in 1975 when they sang another setting of much loved poetry: Finzi's Ode Intimations of Immortality (Wordsworth). Their diction was clear and so it continued. Few can match Holst's flyway textures at tongue-tangling light-speed but the Guildforders trounce the challenge in 'Ever let the fancy roam'. The Symphony reaches outwards 'Towards the Unknown Region' far more effectively than Vaughan Williams' work of that name. In doing so Holst touchingly brushes our cheeks with music of such otherworldly tenderness that it brings tears to the eye. Listen to the harp-beat around 'Underneath large blue-bells tented' (tr 21 3.24 - this is also wonderfully done on the Boult EMI recording) and to 'Bards of Passion and of Mirth' (tr 21 2.00) which rises to the dazzling sun. Track 21 is the one to play if you want to sample the disc. Who else has set with such ineffable beauty the words 'Where the nightingale doth sing / Not a senseless trancèd thing / But divine melodious truth'?

You should note that Dorothy Silk was the solo soprano in the 1925 and 1930 premieres of both the Symphony and the Fantasia.

Competition? The coupling is not unheard of. EMI had CDC 7 49638 2 (since reissued at midprice) and there was also the Intaglio CD of a Sargent-conducted Symphony and Boult conducting the Fantasia. The Intaglio is valuable for its preservation of 1964 and 1967 BBC broadcasts. It is long gone and I was never clear whether this Italian label was entirely legal. That aside they did issue many valuable radio performances. If you see it snap it up not least for Heather Harper's solo contribution (plummier of voice than Dawson and not as poignant as Palmer) in the Symphony.

The Helios uses the same text as the original 1993 issue (CDA66660) except for an update for the artist profiles. The full texts are there. Everything is in English only.

One little aside. Surely the violin solo in 'Next thy Tasso's ardent numbers' was what inspired the viola title track for Carl Davis's music for the 1979 BBCTV adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' - the one with Alan Bates as Michael Henchard.

The Helios is the only digital recording of both works. The Boult/Felicity Palmer is in ADD; the Sargent/Harper also. The analogue origins of these two discs add a soft-focus to the choral contribution.

The Hyperion disc is generously tracked enabling 22 admission points. Ideal for study and for pleasure. The EMI disc has only five tracks.

The cover uses a detail from Arnold Böcklin's Pan Among the Rushes. This is the same Böcklin of The Isle of the Dead fame.

These are much finer interpretations than the cool press of the 1990s suggested with its infatuation with the fine EMI recordings dating from 1964 and 1974. The digital recording presents the multi-layering of the choral singing with satisfying analysis. These two works intertwine comfort musically expressed and great poetry of beauty, life and death. Do we any longer need to concern ourselves with the sentiments that considered Holst and Finzi pretentious and ill-judged for setting great poetry. These days the potential audience for these works will probably have encountered the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth (and certainly of Bridges - desperately unfashionable) for the first time only because they have heard these works!
Rob Barnett

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