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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 Singers
Holst Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
Isobel Collyer (sop); Joya Logan (mezzo); Christopher Mercer (tenor)
John Birch (organ)
rec. October 1988. DDD

This 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.
The 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.
Although 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.
Holst 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.
Miss 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.
Holst 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.
Okay, 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.
Where 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 work.
Wetton 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.
He 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 5655862.
As 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.
Until 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.
Imogen 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!
A ‘wild 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.
To 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 history.
However, 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.
This 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.
Holst’s 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.
More please, Mr Wetton.
Stephen Hall





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