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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Gustav HOLST (1974-1934)
Four Songs for voice and violin op. 35 (1917) [7.21]
Six Songs op. 16 (1904) [13.02]
Vedic Hymns op. 24 (1908) [24.26]
Twelve Humbert Wolfe settings op. 48 (1929) [25.39]
Margrete's Cradle Song Op. 4 No. 2 (1896) [2.38]
The Heart Worships (1907) [3.14]
Susan Gritton (sop)
Philip Langridge (ten)
Christopher Maltman (bar)
Louisa Fuller (violin)
Steuart Bedford (piano)
rec. 5-7 May 1998, St Silas Church, St Silas Place, Chalk Farm, London
first issued in 1997 on Collins Classics
English Song Series - volume 6
NAXOS 8.557117 [76.21]


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This splendidly generous Holst anthology representatively samples his song output: 33 of his 72 solo songs. The selection touches on the major themes that shape his oeuvre. The Four Songs address medievalism (as did his Helen Waddell operatic setting, The Wandering Scholar). The Vedic Hymns link with his oriental/Sanskrit leanings as seen in Beni Mora, Savitri, Indra and Sita. The Wolfe Songs are almost sui generis although echoing The Hymn of Jesus, the more mystical aspects of The Planets and Egdon Heath.

The pure-toned and hoot-free Gritton tackles the brief, austere Medieval Songs inspired by Holst hearing his pupil Christine Ratcliffe singing and accompanying herself in Thaxted Church. The third song is 'I sing of a maiden', a text popularly set by British composers in the 1910s and 1920s. Did these inspire his friend Vaughan Williams to use the same forces for his neglected Housman cycle Along the Field? Gritton continues with the Six Songs straight from the mainstream English song tradition unbowed by commercial balladry. The poets set include Philip Sidney, Tennyson, Blake and Breton. The Tennyson song (Calm is the morn) is admirably peaceful. The Ibsen Cradle Song (tr.32) could just as easily have been part of this set. It comes as no surprise to learn that the pristine singing of Susan Gritton features on one of the many versions of Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Tring TRP084). I am sure she would make a very strong contender if ever she records Barber's Knoxville.

The nine Vedic Hymns are sung by Christopher Maltman who deals with them knowingly and with great sympathy. The galloping Maruts (tr.13) contrasts with the unearthly enchantment and often breath-taking stillness (tr.19) of the rest of the set. This very calming quality also infuses The Heart's Worship whose harmonic tang more than once looks towards that of his friend Vaughan Williams (tr.33). The Vedic songs are indeed hymns, invocational, praising; only the bizarrely descriptive Song of the Frogs (tr.16) breaks the mould. The tremor (as in tr.14 on the words 'Lords of the Sky') in Maltman's voice casts a shadow from time to time although he manages the not inconsiderable breath control demands of the last song on the disc with seeming mastery.

The Wolfe Songs are souvenirs of the 1920s and of the fame of the poetry of Humbert Wolfe. It had something to do with the mystique of the time, of contact with the Beyond, of Madame Blavatsky, of desperate attempts by the bereaved to contact those killed during the Great War. These songs undismayed by sentimentality, are infused with peace, a fey stillness, musical references, the glittering piano figuration, the lyrical vocal line, predominantly the absence of dissonance (although it does put in an appearance in The thought (tr.24)) and the inhuman mysteries of Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse might almost belong as a pendant to The Planets but nowhere in that work does Holst deal with such unflinching remoteness and desolation of emotion. Wolfe's language is a development of Flecker's refulgently allusional poetry. The wonder is that, as far as I know, with the exception of Frank Bridge's setting of Journey's End, only Holst set these poems. Both Michael Head (still awaiting his own CD Edition) and Gerald Finzi should have found these poems very apt material. Wolfe's slim volumes, now battered and age-worn, can still be found on the shelves of secondhand booksellers. Philip Langridge is very good in these songs. A version with orchestration by Colin Matthews, under the title The Dream City, is available on Hyperion Helios. Apart from that I am sure that there was at one time an Argo LP of them perhaps sung by Pears.

Steuart Bedford, a Britten protégé and one of the pillars of Aldeburgh is completely at ease in this repertoire and, more to the point, gives every appearance of caring for it. Holst's music was often in evidence at Aldeburgh so his presence comes as no surprise.

In common with the other five Naxos ex-Collins volumes full texts are given. There are no translations - English only. Keith Anderson's note covers the essentials as well as surprising this reader when he tells us that Holst conducted three Boston Symphony concerts and during the same U.S. visit met his actor brother, Emil, known there as Ernest Cossart!

How many more volumes are there to come? I know that there is at least one more; a Gurney collection. Perhaps there were others unissued before Collins fell under the axe.

Having pulled off the coup of getting licences to issue the Collins English Song series Naxos should now look at negotiating for the complete Lyrita catalogue. The chances of that happening are probably comparable with the chances of Regis licensing the Conifer CDs of Handley conducting the nine Malcolm Arnold symphonies. As Harry Hill might have said "Now, what are the chances of that?"

Collins knew what they were about with this collection. There is still no competition. Not even close. If you are at all interested in Holst or English song this is as attractive a buy as you are ever going to get. Don't delay ... buy today.

Rob Barnett

 



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