> Gustav Holst [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908-12) [12.16]
Savitri - A chamber opera in one act (1908) [30.43]
Seven Partsongs [20.05]
The Evening-Watch (1924) [4.26]
A Fugal Concerto (1922) [7.26]
St Paul's Suite (1912-13) [12.33]
The Perfect Fool - ballet music (1923) [10.43]
Egdon Heath (1928) [12.49]
The Hymn of Jesus (1920) [21.46]
A Moorside Suite (1928) [14.26]
Rec 1961-1994 ADD DDD
DECCA The British Music Collection 470 191-2 [149.30]


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This is well nigh perfection. The lack of the sung texts just misses perfection. However for generosity and interpretative acumen you will not match this anthology at any price let alone the mid/bargain bracket. This series is clearly pitched at those beguiled by EMI's British Composers series (mid-price) and the indefatigably produced cornucopiac riches of the Naxos catalogue. To gild the lily the discs are packed close to the absolute limits of generosity.

Decca have done well to steer clear of the easy choice of The Planets. Instead they have trawled the back catalogue as far as the 1960s for some classic interpretations. While analogue hiss is present the glamorous intrinsic qualities of the music more than compensate.

The Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda are examples of Holst's cool, mithril delicacy. He lacks nothing in sensuous expression though his music never topples over into the sort of eroticism we find in Franck's glorious Psyché or Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. The four hymns are taken by the sopranos and altos of the Purcell Singers who bring out the clean lines and unhandselled innocence of the writing - repeatedly echoing and pre-echoing the Whitman-based Ode to Death and the mysteries of the double handful of Wolfe Songs. The harpist is Osian Ellis. These songs are accompanied by harp alone whereas the Seven Part Songs are with string orchestra. They are a natural partner to Finzi's Bridges Songs and Moeran's Songs of Springtime. Especially beautiful are O Love I Complain and Susan Longfield's soprano solo in Love on my heart. The Evening-Watch sets, with dignity and restraint, the dialogue between soul and body.

Savitri is a chamber opera of the same dimensions as The Wandering Scholar. This is a tale of Death outfoxed by love - a sort of Dravidian Orfeo. Robert Tear is in full flower while Janet Baker darkly colours the proceedings deploying the darker part of her register. Even in celebration this deeply sincere score is never showy in a coloratura way. Felicity Palmer's Hyperion recording on Helios is rather weakened by the quavery tone of her two men although hers is of course a much more recent recording. The opera is in five tracks.

All the above tracks are in analogue from 1965.

Hogwood takes the Fugal Concerto and the St Paul's Suite at a much speedier lick than Imogen Holst in her Lyrita recordings. The effect of this is to bring out the Dumbarton Oaks and Pulcinella parallels and I am not sure I like this. The St Paul's Suite stands up far better to this treatment but even so at this pace things can sound graceless - even brutal.

Next come three works that form the content of one of the most famous Holst Decca SXL LPs of all time. These are all conducted by Boult and though the recordings date from 1961/2 they sound handsome and ruddily healthy. This is especially so in The Perfect Fool music where I detect the same almost petulant boisterous elan found in Boultís much underrated Sibelius tone poems on Vanguard (Omega Classics). The Dance of the Spirits of Fire spits and flames, barracks and belches with brassy energy. The gang of trombones still sound rudely healthy and bellicose - a tribute to FFRR legacy technology.

The following two works show Holst at zenith. Egdon Heath is a tone poem in which Sibelian woodwind and grim Janacek-like writing probe the Hardy-inspired parallels between the eponymous heath of 'The Return of the Native' and indomitable tragic humanity. It is helpful that Kenneth Chalmers in his notes reminds us that this work was commissioned by the New York SO who premiered it in February 1928. In it I hear other echoes - Roy Harris's epic stride and string writing, a dash of Sibelius (a Damrosch favourite of those years), even a work that Holst presumably did not know - Constant Lambert's Music for Orchestra.

The second work is the Hymn of Jesus written near the perigee of the Great War in 1917. It is a blustering, subtle and revolutionary antidote to the cloying suffocation of the British oratorio tradition. This is a work that reset the clocks and paved the way for Ligeti's choral writing, for Foulds' World Requiem and for Walton's Belshazzar's Feast; not to mention Howard Hanson's similarly glorious Lament for Beowulf. Holst did not shrink from a cloud of whispering sprechgesang aping some celestial fugal rite. He embraced plainsong in the Vexilla Regis, passages uncannily similar to JanŠček's Glagolytic Mass and a serene reaching out towards unknown regions and all without a whiff Stanfordian Ďrum-ti-tumí. In short Holst completely cast off the ordinary in writing about the extraordinary.

Lastly Elgar Howarth unleashes the Moorside Suite - written in the same year as Egdon Heath. The Grimethorpe play with customary skill and subtlety delighting in Holst's way with layered counterpointing and always furnishing ear-catching intrigue at tuba level all the way up to the trumpet line. The analogue tape still sounds superb wearing its quarter century with stylish ease. The second movement is done at just the right tempo. Am I the only one to wonder whether Finzi had heard this movement before he wrote the song To Lizbie Brown. Rather a shame that Decca chose to present this multi-movement suite in a single track. The last movement still sounds absolutely cracking with rasping truculent impact and a determined rhythmic blast.

Rob Barnett

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