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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
CD 1
The Hymn of Jesus H140 (Op.37) (1917) [22:06]
Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral/Richard Hickox
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Sir Charles Groves
Choral Symphony H155 (Op. 41) (1924) [50:13]
Felicity Palmer (soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
CD 2
The Wandering Scholar - Chamber opera in one act (libretto: Clifford Bax) H176 (1930) [24:24]
Michael Rippon (baritone - Louis; Norma Burrowes (soprano) - Alison, his wife; Michael Langdon (bass) - Father Philippe; Robert Tear (tenor) - A Wandering Scholar; English Opera Group; English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
At the Boar's Head - A musical interlude in one act (from Shakespeare’s Henry IV) H156 (Op. 42) (1925) [51:11]
Philip Langridge (tenor) - Prince Hal; Sir John Tomlinson (bass) - Falstaff; Elise Ross (soprano) - Hostess (Mistress Quickly); Felicity Palmer (mezzo) - Doll Tearsheet; David Wilson-Johnson (baritone) - Pistol; Peter Hall (tenor) - Peto; Richard Suart (baritone) - Bardolph; Michael George (bass) - Poins
Men's voices of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir/Edmund Walters
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Atherton
rec. Kingsway Hall, London 26-27 January 1977 (Hymn); 5, 7, 9 March 1974 (Symphony); No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 17-19 July 1974 (Scholar); 12-13 May 1981 (Boar’s Head). ADD
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 9689292 [72:28 + 75:46]
Experience Classicsonline

EMI Classics take us on another generous romp through their 1970s back catalogue. To the accompaniment of a completely unobtrusive analogue 'hush' we encounter two rare operas and two ambitious choral works by Holst.

Speaking of the operas I am surprised that EMI never got around to recording his fairytale satire The Perfect Fool nor the early and allegedly ‘Wagnerian-bawling’ Sanskrit grand opera Sita. We ‘know’ The Perfect Fool from the much recorded ballet music but there's much more to it than that. Now that his friend Vaughan Williams has had Chandos record the equally satirical and delightful Poisoned Kiss it is well past time for a studio recording of The Fool. As for Sita, Chandos have done his perhaps similarly-styled Cloud Messenger cantata. The magical Rig Veda hymns have been recorded for years - try the Imogen Holst version on Decca-Argo and the Willcocks on Unicorn-Kanchana. No doubt the creation of fully integrated sets of performing materials for Sita would be a great expense of time and funding. Yet I have every expectation that the listening public would flock to the standard once a recording was put on sale.

Speaking of the Holst Indian connection brings us to exoticism of The Hymn of Jesus which for me links to later works such as Szymanowski's Song of the Night and Stabat Mater. EMI, in making this recording, were setting themselves in competition with the still superb-sounding Boult 1960s Decca which can be heard in honest FFRR magnificence on the Decca Holst set. The EMI sound has great impact and good stereo spread in a work that moves in angelic antiphonal delights. The range from organ profundity to the soft silver of the female voices is wonderful. You can sample this in the Give ye heed unto my dancing finale (tr. 5). Good to see Richard Hickox's name mentioned as director of the St Paul's Choristers. This piece is vintage Holst with many hallmarks in ebullient and sensitive evidence. Those final billowing lighter-than-air Amens are magical. In fact the usually-Liverpool-based Groves might well here have had one of his most successful sessions. The spun silver and gold filaments that twine and mesmerise remind us what a superb composer Holst was. This is music of mysticism and a striding ecstasy. It makes a generous companion to A Choral Symphony.

The 1925 Choral Symphony to words by Keats has been a personal favourite since a friend bought the LP when it was first issued. It's a piece I have great affection for and while I have often been nonplussed by the stark Choral Fantasia the lovingly couched word settings move me still. This Boult recording - its premiere - the second came in 1993 with Davan-Wetton in Guildford - Hyperion Helios CDH55104. It's as pleasing as the Boult and yet the Abbey Road acoustic is more transparent than Hyperion’s Henry Wood Hall. Again the wide range of sound impresses - from the lissom soprano voice of Felicity Palmer to the rampant Bacchus's crew. The second movement is a setting of the sustained, stilling and distant emotional cool of Ode on a Grecian Urn - part Venus-part Neptune. The music at 4:10 is incredibly moving and one wonders what emotional reactions it must have touched off among the War-bereaved audiences of the 1920s. The quicksilver feyness listeners will know from Mercury is engaged by the full-throttle delicate Scherzo - a tour de force in tongue-twisting acceleration. The grand finale has golden majesty, poetry and inspired musical invention. The music blazes with exultation intermittently over a typically trudging Holstian ostinato. It’s the sort of ostinato we also hear in his very moving Whitman setting Dirge for Two Veterans. One of the most beautiful moments in all music comes with the words from 13:34 onwards - “Underneath large bluebells tented where the daises are rose-scented.” It gives me goose-pimples every time I hear it. Some of the very same listeners of the 1920s may well have mapped their own experiences and need for consolation into the words in the finale and those valedictory and tellingly tolled-out words: “Bards of passion and of mirth, Ye have left your souls on earth, Ye have souls in Heaven too, Double lived in regions new.”

A change of gear comes with CD 2. The Wandering Scholar shows Holst's vitality borne along in kinship with his friend RVW's Sir John in Love. The lingua franca is pretty much identical. The plot is based on Helen Waddell's Chaucerian medieval tales. The pretty tame bawdiness would hardly raise an eyebrow now. The vocal acting here is vividly done and the enunciation very clearly done without preciousness. I liked the klaxon masculinity of the start of Someone is coming. Tear as The Scholar is in pretty good voice despite the constriction at the strained top of his range. Tracked in eleven segments this is ideal for pleasure and study.

At the Boar's Head is a problematic one-acter - more of a lyric interlude than a grand drama. It sits comfortably alongside RVW's Sir John in Love (EMI; Chandos) but while Sir John is a satisfying full evening the Holst is, at about the same duration as the Choral Symphony, half an evening ... if that. Its delights are well shaped and marshalled in this sole recording. While making a pleasing companion to RVW's Sir John it is lower key even in the majestic bombast of How Now and Harry is Valiant (trs. 20-21). There is at least one moment of Puccinian heat towards the end of the work - though I doubt Holst would have accepted that description. The tunes, we are told, are in large part from Playford's English Dancing Master of 1651 yet Holst assimilates them so completely that their adventitious origin does not intrude.

Sadly, for four works that entail singing, there are no texts provided though you may be able to find some of the words on the internet. The notes are by Imogen Holst, Colin Matthews and the composer. If you still and irrationally have not been able to bear parting with the LPs you will be able to refer to the little booklets of words.

Two eccentric operas not without modest enchantment and two blazing choral masterworks.

Rob Barnett

Tracklisting 
Hymn of Jesus 
Prelude: Vexilla Regis proderunt
Glory to thee, Father!
Fain would I be saved
Divine Grace is dancing
Give ye heed unto my dancing

A Choral Symphony 
(1985 Digital Remaster):
Prelude (Invocation to Pan)
I. Song and Bacchanale
II. Ode to a Grecian Urn
III. Scherzo (Fancy - Folly's Song)
IV. Finale

Wandering Scholar  
When boughs are green in April (Louis)
Ho there, old dog (Louis)
The most beautiful piece (Alison)
The time, then, was well chosen (Philippe)
Someone is coming! (Alison)
Before that I was twenty (Pierre)
So learnèd a clerk (Alison)
Heigho, a pretty knave! (Alison)
He'll lie all day in the sun (Louis)
As I was walking (Pierre)
Monster! Villain! (Louis)

At the Boar’s Head
Of all the birds (Bardolph)
Are you not a coward? (Falstaff)
I am a rogue (Falstaff)
We two saw you four (Prince)
I know you all (Prince)
Do thou stand (Prince)
I' faith, sweetheart (Hostess)
Devouring Time (Prince)
How now! What news? (Prince)
Harry is valiant (Falstaff)
For God's sake (Doll)
Now comes in the sweetest morsel (Falstaff) 

 


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