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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908-12) [12.16]
Purcell Singers/Osian Ellis (harp)/Imogen Holst
Savitri - A chamber opera in one act (1908) [30.43]
Janet Baker (mezzo), Robert Tear (tenor), Thomas Hemsley (baritone)/Purcell Singers/English Chamber Orchestra/Imogen Holst
Seven Partsongs [20.05]
Purcell Singers/English Chamber Orchestra/Imogen Holst
The Evening Watch (1924) [4.26]
Purcell Singers/Imogen Holst
A Fugal Concerto (1922) [7.26]
St Paul's Suite (1912-13) [12.33]
St Paul Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
The Perfect Fool - ballet music (1923) [10.43]
Egdon Heath (1928) [12.49]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
The Hymn of Jesus (1920) [21.46]
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Adrian Boult
A Moorside Suite (1928) [14.26]
Grimethorpe Colliery Band/Elgar Howarth
rec. 1961 (The Perfect Fool, Egdon Heath); 1962 (The Hymn of Jesus); 1965 (Choral Hymns, Savitri, Partsongs, The Evening Watch); 1973 (Moorside Suite); 1992 (Fugal Concerto, St Paul's Suite). ADD; DDD
Budget price
DECCA 470 191 2 [2 CDs: 74.15 + 75:13]



 

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 a length.

Egdon Heath’ 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 form.

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 with Britten.

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.

Decca’s re-release 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 his pastiche!

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.

Stephen Hall

See also reviews by Rob Barnett and Terry Barfoot

 

 


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