The popularity of The Planets deludes us as
to the real nature of Holst. For the most striking aspect of his achievement
is that his approach is extraordinarily wide-ranging. In his early works
the influence of Wagner was important, but he outgrew this trend as
he developed his interest in subjects such as Sanskrit literature, English
poetry and literature, musical neo-classical and baroque styles, and,
of course, astrology. He was a gifted trombone player, performing for
many years with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, while as a teacher he was
inspiring, working from 1919 at the Royal College of Music, and more
significantly perhaps, from 1905 at St Paul's Girls School at Hammersmith.
In many respects Holst is the least known of the major
English composers. The fame and popularity of his remarkable suite The
Planets ought really to encourage and stimulate interest in other masterpieces
- for instance the chamber opera Savitri, the oriental fantasy
Beni Mora or the tone poem Egdon Heath, to mention three
works whose outlooks are strongly contrasted. For a wide-ranging, even
challenging, approach to his art was fundamental to both the man and
This marvellous collection of reissues, gathered as
a 2CD set in Decca's 'British Music Collection', will provide the listener
with a range of experiences commensurate with understanding the true
nature of this elusive composer. The performances are good too, the
recordings never less than satisfactory. Even the earliest of them,
the two orchestral pieces recorded by Boult and the London Philharmonic
in the early '60s, have come up splendidly in their reincarnation. The
ballet music from the opera The Perfect Fool is nothing less
than a showpiece, its outer movements full of exciting rhythms and colourful
intensity, whereas the elusive Egdon Heath is the work Holst
reckoned to be his greatest. It is dark and brooding, a 'difficult'
work revealing its secrets only reluctantly. But once the listener has
entered into its strange and compelling world, which was inspired by
the opening scene of Hardy's novel The Return of the Native,
it is hard not to concur with the composer's own opinion. Boult's performance
is keenly judged, and the recorded sound is suitably atmospheric, wearing
its years lightly.
The vocal music is a good deal less well known than
it might be. Holst loved working with singers, and he really understood
the challenges of writing for mixed voices. Both the Partsongs and
The Evening Watch reflect this, with idiomatic performances under
the devoted direction of his daughter Imogen. If some of the more recent
recordings of this repertoire, notably those by the Holst Singers and
Stephen Layton on Hyperion, are more atmospheric still, that is because
the more recent recording allows for more subtle balances to be achieved
in the part-writing.
The chamber opera Savitri is in many respects
the most demanding of these works from the listener's point of view.
Its strange, mystical world captures the essence of a story about love
and death taken from the Sanskrit, a language the eclectic Holst learned
specially for the purpose of composing it. The opera is unlikely to
receive a finer performance than this one, chiefly because of the great
Janet Baker in the title role, at her radiant best.
The two chamber orchestra pieces, the St Paul's
Suite and the Fugal Concerto, are performed by the St Paul
Chamber Orchestra (Minnesota) under Christopher Hogwood. These are at
once the most recent recordings, and, in terms of sound, probably the
best among the collection. The performances are good too, though the
phrasing sometimes seems efficient rather than warm.
If Egdon Heath was regarded by Holst as his
masterpiece, and The Planets is undoubtedly given that accolade
by the public, the claim of The Hymn of Jesus cannot be far behind.
Boult's splendid recording was made back in the 1960s, but its remastering
has been triumphantly successful, with orchestra and chorus captured
in a really compelling and atmospheric balance of ensemble and acoustic.
The music is conceived in a single sweep across many contrasting visions,
and this performance succeeds in reconciling these demands. For this
collection must assume a proud position as one of the best issues of
English music in the catalogue.