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Decca Phase 4
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Two Psalms for choir, string orchestra and organ
H117 (1912) [12:02]
Six Choruses for male voices and string orchestra
H186 aka Op.53 (1932) [20:29]
The Evening Watch for mezzo, tenor and eight part
choir H159 aka Op.43 (1924) [4:42]
Seven Partsongs for female voices and string orchestra
H162 aka Op.44 (1926) [23:44]
Nunc dimittis for a capella chorus H127 (1915 rev
1979 I.Holst) [3:23]
Holst Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
Isobel Collyer (sop); Joya Logan (mezzo); Christopher Mercer
John Birch (organ)
rec. October 1988. DDD
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55170 [64:38]
Helios re-issue of a CD issued at full price by Hyperion
in 1989 is welcome. However it faces stiff opposition from
Decca’s ‘lordly’ re-issue of gems locked away for too long
on Argo LPs.
Seven Part Songs Op.44 (H 162) cannot be overrated in Holst’s
career because he was working up to his Op.47 masterpiece
of ‘Egdon Heath’ and all the clues are in Op.44.
Holst was setting Robert Bridges’ poems he had sonic matters
in mind so we hear openly held strings without vibrato. Tortuous
harmonies and dynamics are there to excite people who listen
to music by looking at frequency graphs on computers instead
of using their ears.
respected his friend’s poems so they were not just words,
as sometimes happened with Britten, if very rarely. However
the stand-off between Hilary Davan Wetton and Imogen Holst
is partly about that.
Holst had sung her father’s Op.44 and knew what he was after
so, in her 1960s recording with the ECO and Purcell Singers
for Argo (Decca) insisted on close-up recording even though
it strained the engineers more than somewhat.
himself had told RVW that this piece needed a dry acoustic
for best results because it used harmonies and dynamics which
would be spoiled by something too big. Thaxted Church was
just about right and Holst partly wrote with an amateur chorus
in mind. He also intended extremely sparse orchestration
with middle strings often using held monotones.
transfer those concepts to ‘Egdon Heath’ and you will see
the point I make. I stress that Op.44 is a complete singularity
with the resolution in the last and longest processional
movement lasting over 11 minutes.
Imogen Holst really scores in this work is in the final movement.
There she conveys the journey of the dead bride-to-be in
the recorded image which moves from left to right after breathtaking
placing of the soloists and chorus at the start of this amazing
has gorgeous phrasing if less sense of drama in the Helios
Op.44 but he recorded it before the Imogen Holst reissue
and I hope will return to it to give us what will surely
be a classic.
is let down very badly by the engineers because the clarity
and openness of the other items on this CD seemed to leave
them, although parts of Track 1, the Two Psalms H117 have
a similar fault of vagueness. Psalm 86 is better rendered
in the re-release of Imogen Holst’s EMI recording with ‘The
Choral Fantasia’ alongside Finzi’s ‘Dies Natalis’ on CDM
for the rest of this disc, what we hear is a Holst expert
in the making with a very fine touch. If it comes to direct
comparisons I suggest that Wetton beats Miss Holst in ‘The
Evening Watch’ Op. 43; he somehow digs very deeply. His Nunc
dimittis, here given the H number 127 is truly lovely
but, again, slightly squashed by poor engineering. Similarly,
in Tracks 3 to 8, ‘Six Choruses’ H 186. Actually in the ‘Six
Mediaeval Lyrics’ Op.53, Wetton is masterly and the engineers
do him justice if listeners have fairly high-end gear or
a good DAC. I used several for this review but only the Beresford
7500 basic pro prototype opened up the middle which is where
the harmonics are. Only this bit of kit revealed any coherent
words at all in Op.44. Accordingly, listeners will
be disappointed with the ‘atmospheric’ but unclear tracks
on this disc if they use domestic equipment. The errors could
have been avoided with greater care.
Decca re-releases the Six Mediaeval Lyrics and other
choral works conducted by Imogen Holst we cannot do a head-to-head
comparison. That Argo ZRG LP in a series of three also contained
Britten and Pears in Holst’s Humbert Wolfe Songs so is part
of our heritage, especially as the recordings received public
funding. I hope that Decca managers read MWI.
Holst’s choir’s rendering of Op.53 (H 186) is more masculine
than that of Wetton’s Holst Singers but not crude. She has
better string playing but we wait for Decca to do their duty!
card’ in this important work for male chorus is a rather
odd release by EMI on CFP 5759812 under Ian Humphris and
combined with Menuhin conducting some of Holst’s easier string
orchestra pieces. Sir Yehudi is unconvincing with the ECO
but Humphris with the Baccholian Singers is dead straight
and served well by good EMI engineers. It’s worth checking
out despite limited availability.
sum up, the enormous thrill of this Helios release under
Hilary Davan Wetton is that we hear ensemble playing of important
and complex music with a sense of discovery in it. Contrast
this with Decca’s decision to leave the Imogen Holst versions
locked up for years. Readers of this review will recognise
the tendency of large corporations to interrupt cultural
in this case Mr Wetton followed his instinct for Holst and
did a brilliant job, albeit with less expert forces than
those available to Miss Holst. He succeeds in all but Op.44
(Track 10) where he is let down by inexcusably bad engineering
in a crucial opus with physical motion built in by the composer.
Wetton misses this in the last movement but maybe it wasn’t
possible with the engineers he had.
CD sounds tinny and plain lousy on domestic equipment but
even mid-range players to a very good DAC release this conductor’s
sheer gift for understanding Holst in his most complex phase
(Opp.44 and 53). Accordingly I recommend it with glee to
those who take some trouble to hear the best. This doesn’t
mean those with lots of money but selecting the right combinations
of devices to release what is there on the disc in the improved
(and cheaper) Helios pressing of the Hyperion original, which
was too harsh to be just to the music.
genius lies in music for real ears in real places, even though
his musical language is often other-worldly. What Wetton
achieves in this reissue is a foot in the door of showing
the wonder of Holst’s music and its relevance to music composed
long after his death.
please, Mr Wetton.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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