This re-release of
definitive Holst from Decca’s glory
days is important for scholars and listeners
alike because the music is so fresh
and, mostly, presented with authority.
Instead of taking items
in track order I want to get straight
to the classic Boult recordings on Disc
2 because there are differences between
this release and the same items on Decca’s
‘The Essential Holst’ of 1995 – so we
have a mystery.
Actually it’s not hard
to work out with minimal technical knowledge
as the 1995 release with Solti’s just
about adequate Planets Op.32
was the main item but thin compared
with Boult’s last Planets for
EMI with the NPO. Thus some dynamic
compression was necessary and careful
listeners will also note very small
speed adjustments altering pitch by
less than a quarter tone. It might have
been accidental but it’s there.
So to this British
Music Collection release and straight
to ‘The Perfect Fool’ Op.39.
Here it runs for 10:43 but only 10:42
on the 1995 release so hardly important
except that the 2004 re-release has
far greater dynamics, much the same
as on the original LXT vinyl with a
warmth missing from the 1995 release.
Op.39 represents a masterly use of the
orchestra and the Decca engineers get
as close to the vinyl as they can in
a work of both brilliance and subtlety.
Boult has it over very few rivals by
Op.47 (1927) lasts 12:49 on this double
Decca but is 12:54 on ‘The Essential
Holst’. I checked this oddity out and
it comes down flatter pitching on the
1995 compilation. Inexcusable but the
re-release is pitch-perfect as well
as having the dynamics of the vinyl
as near as dammit.
Extraneous noise -
traffic, I think - is there but we also
hear in the bleak opening on double
basses the crucial noise of real instruments
as if in a live performance. Holst then
shows us what remains throughout his
most integrated work, years ahead of
its time in texture, compression, harmony
and, it must be said, stubborn genius.
It left VW feeling cold and their correspondence
in the book ‘Heirs and Rebels’ (OUP)
was a bit chilly for a while. However
VW came to agree with his best friend
about ‘Egdon Heath’ before Holst’s
death in 1934. VW’s 6th and
9th symphonies use aspects
of his friend’s ‘best’ work if one listens
hard. Holst’s vision of a bleak century
is as valid for WW2 as his prediction
of WW1 in ‘The Planets’ but Holst
was long dead before the second war.
Track 9, ‘The Hymn
of Jesus’ Op.37 is faithfully rendered
with plenty of headroom in the Boult
original. It also avoids some of the
slight mid-range confusion on the LXT
vinyl if played through a very good
DAC but don’t expect to get at what’s
in there otherwise. I used an experimental
modified Beresford 7510 with a direct
feed headphone outlet option; this is
a test instrument for a few months until
it’s available to buy. Top marks to
Decca engineers for giving us a good
account of the 1962 master tape at last.
The 1995 ‘Essential Holst’ double CD
was far too compressed as part of the
‘digital disease’ of confusing numbers
on a screen with actual musical quality.
Track 10, ‘A Moorside
Suite’ (1928) is timed at 14:26
yet was 14:23 on the 1995 release and
the same pitch issues are there but
let’s not get bogged down in maths when
the important point is that Elgar Howarth
conducts the Grimethorpe Colliery Band
with the massive experience of a brass
player in a great work by a brass player.
Holst was a trombonist when neuritis
of the hands limited his piano abilities
and he was advised that his asthma would
be relieved by blowing an instrument.
This performance has not a single fault
and the engineers in 1975 were on top
The suite is often
overlooked because some people are snobby
about brass bands but it contains a
range of Holst’s folk roots, the virtuosity
of aspects of the ‘Planets’,
the serious processional style of the
later years as well as hints of new
harmonies and touches of the neo-classicism
which was to come. If it just washes
over the listener as a minor work the
fault is with the listener. A comparison
with Britten’s ‘Suite on English
Folk Tunes – a time there was’ Op.95
helps understanding of why some composers
look back to look forward and delight
us in the process.
The ‘Choral Hymns
from the Rig Veda’ Op.26 (Third
set) run far shorter (25
seconds) than on the 1995 ‘Essential
Holst’. It must be a timing fault because
dynamics and pitch tested through three
different combinations of players and
DACs actually reveal the version under
review to be the best and closest to
Imogen Holst’s vinyl in range, transparency
and the correct placing of Osian Ellis’s
harp – indeed the 2004 reissue deserves
special praise and the late Ms Holst
would have loved it.
Holst’s so-called ‘Indian
phase’ was viewed with suspicion when
he pursued it. Holst was a man who made
unusual connections between things so
we cannot assume that he was a scholar
of oriental philosophy any more than
having a belief in astrology (‘Planets’)
except that it inspired musical results.
The proof is in his correspondence with
VW and Clifford Bax and this characteristic
is shared with Stravinsky. Thus the
chamber opera ‘Savitri’ Op.25
of 1908 has no exotic pretence to it
and simply uses an episode from Sanskrit
literature to produce a form which became
a major feature of British music in
the 20th century, notably
Holst had put on productions
of Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’
and I see the roots being there rather
than in Indian culture. The form is
the clue and it is English, despite
little slips back into Wagnerian ways
which Holst and VW were anxious to throw
off as mature but still youngish men.
from Argo with Baker, Tear and Hemsley
, the ECO and conducted by ‘Imo’ demonstrates
just how good music was in the 1960s.
It’s a tribute to Decca’s engineers,
then and now, pure and simple. While
I am a great fan of Philip Langridge,
Felicity Lott and Stephen Varcoe, the
rival recording (Hyperion
CDH55042) with Hickox is quite simply
outclassed as well as lacking the sensitive
motion of personnel that Ms Holst achieved
often in her Argo and Lyrita recordings.
The ‘moving chorus’
demanded by Holst in the private performance
of ‘The Planets’ in the final
movement, ‘Neptune’, had been tried
by the composer in practice. In ‘Savitri’
we hear the characters in actual motion
as the drama demands, as opposed to
relying on engineering tricks.
The Hyperion version
uses too much ambience, whereas the
original allows us to hear the crucial
focus of the singers as Savitri’s
love for her husband Satyavan causes
Death (bass) to release the human while
‘he’ retreats spatially. Yes, this can
be achieved electronically but with
voices of best quality it is so refreshing
to hear them plainly in quasi-analogue,
which the Hyperion fails to deliver.
The Hyperion pairing for ‘Savitri’
is a Colin Matthews reconstruction of
Holst’s Humbert Wolfe settings for small
orchestra and female voice – and he
gets the songs in the wrong order in
The parallels between
the Sanskrit story of Savitri and Greek
mythology are clear so I recommend that
Monteverdi’s ‘L’Orfeo’ is kept
in mind when listening to this unjustly
neglected and stunningly beautiful work.
Physical motion of
personnel is also a feature of the ‘Seven
Partsongs’ Op.44 which runs for
20:05 on the reissue of Imogen Holst’s
Argo recording of the 1960s with the
ECO and Purcell Singers. This was one
of several Holst recordings made by
Decca-Argo for their prestige label.
Imogen’s other recordings and the classic
Britten/Pears version of the Humbert
Wolfe songs have been gathering dust.
Come on Decca, and let loose those definitive
recordings. As I recall, some public
money was used for the making of them.
Op.44 is a work of
great importance but I refer readers
to my detailed reviews and comparisons
with Helios CDH55170, ‘The Evening Watch
etc’ with the Holst Singers and Orchestra
conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. Mr
Wetton’s modern approach with DDD sound
is ideal for comparing with the ADD
version by ‘Imo’.
With Wetton’s CD in
mind, Track 17 on CD 1 of this Decca
double is next and ‘The Evening Watch’
is oddly weak in this re-issue. Miss
Holst’s solid phrasing is let down by
a poor bit of engineering which squeezes
the dynamics far too much. I tested
my pressing on four mid- to top- range
transports just to make sure.
Having achieved a lot
on this issue it could be said that
less than 5 minutes of getting it wrong
is tolerable but as Holst’s exquisite
setting on Henry Vaughan’s 17th
century poem deserves better than this.
Clearly ‘winding down’
to the least successful tracks on this
otherwise superb reissue. They are both
conducted by Christopher Hogwood with
the St Paul (Minnesota) Chamber Orchestra.
On Disc 1 (Tracks 18-21) is ‘A Fugal
Concerto’ from Holst’s brief neo-classical
period being pursued by Hindemith and
Stravinsky in the 1920s. It actually
has not a single fugue but uses counterpoint
in the English ‘round’ style to explore
woodwind soloists against lovely string
orchestra writing. It anticipates Britten
in a curious way in a work lasting only
7:26 in this version. Hogwood rushes
it a bit compared with Imogen Holst
on Lyrita SRCD.223 but the Britten side
emerges. That said, Hogwood’s ‘crash,
bang, wallop’ approach left over from
his David Munrow early music days -
when pre-renaissance music was assumed
to be coarse - totally wrecks the St.
Paul’s Suite Op.29 (2), Tracks 1-4
on Disc 2 (12:33) despite a good recording.
Being kind, I say only that enthusiasm
is no substitute for understanding so
if you want to hear these works done
well you should try the Lyrita
re-issues of Imogen Holst’s recordings
with the ECO.
Decca has done well,
overall, with this double CD set and
I request them to release their entire
Holst stock soonest, notably the ‘Six
Mediaeval Lyrics’ and originals found
on ‘The Essential Holst’ but missing
from this double.
A generation of hungry
listeners has passed while the masters
have gathered dust. It’s a matter of
artistic duty as much as anything else,
with profits made and made again per
format change. Those who want quality
are seldom into MP3 and piracy but want
the purity in evidence on this magnificent
Decca British Music Collection release.
See also reviews
Barnett and Terry