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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Walt Whitman Op.7 (1899) [7:14]
Suite de Ballet in E flat Op.10 (1899) [19:43]
Suite in E flat Op.28 No.1 orch. Gordon Jacob (1909) [10:12]
A Hampshire Suite Op. 28 No.2 orch. Gordon Jacob (1911) [11:18]
A Moorside Suite orch. Gordon Jacob (1928) [17:01]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. Watford Town Hall, 14 Jan 1988 (Whitman); July and 23 August 1993 (Suite E flat); 26 August 1993 (Hampshire, Moorside); Kingsway Hall, 7 March 1980 (Suite de Ballet). ADD (Suite de Ballet); DDD
LYRITA SRCD.210 [63:31]



This Lyrita Holst re-release is unlikely to sell in huge quantities because it contains none of Holst’s ‘star music’ but it provides an essential insight into the development of a genius too short a time on earth.

The superb sleeve-notes by Stephen Lloyd get straight to the point that Holst was a working musician who composed – just as Elgar was; but Elgar lived a long life and became a member of the ‘establishment’ on merit - despite being a Catholic in England.

Track 1 on this disc is the Walt Whitman Overture Op.7 (1899) and this from the same year as Elgar’s ‘Enigma’. I can hear very little Holst in the piece, except maybe a very strong command of brass writing for a man of only 25 and agree with Stephen Lloyd that there is a lot of Wagner and Strauss in this short work … but there is more. Lloyd’s notes explain the impact of Whitman’s poetry on British composers of the time but I find his attempt to link Whitman with this brief work unconvincing. Whereas Charles Ives wrote musical profiles of writers bearing some resemblance to their flavour, Holst’s Op.7 is really a standalone piece of music with nothing Whitmanesque about it except maybe freedom and youthfulness, hence the vigour of the piece. However unless we knew it to be by Holst it would be an interesting exemplar of how to use an orchestra by a young man in 1899 and including a few Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov devices.

Tracks 2-5 feature the Suite de Ballet Op.10 (1899). This waited until 1904 to be performed. I wonder if the Valse movement was revised after Holst heard Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ as there are some aspects which are very close in the use of woodwinds. The music sounds a bit later than the opening Dance Rustique, unless this is due to the orchestration being by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), an orchestral genius and some-time pupil of Holst. Track 4, Scène de Nuit, is still immature but there are violin lines which, to me, are definitely akin to later Holst within a generalised mixture of other influences, mainly Russian. Bear in mind that Holst was from a Latvian immigrant family although firmly English himself, born and bred in Cheltenham. Whatever, the [7:32] movement is truly lovely and expertly crafted. Nicholas Braithwaite and the LPO give us a real treat. Track 5, Carnival [5’42"] seems to merge Elgar and sundry Russians in a demonstration of a serious musical voice emerging in his mid-twenties but it takes a lot of experience to spot the dots to be joined up. The brass and low register writing really give it away as proto-Holst.

The Suite in E flat Op.28 No.1 of 1909 truly demonstrates the change in Holst once he had directly absorbed folk melodies with Vaughan Williams on quite extended visits to East Anglia. The ‘field days’ mentioned in biographies and by Stephen Lloyd in the notes.

Although VW was later than Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles and Percy Grainger in setting forth to explore folk music as it was thought to be dying out, he used his many contacts to locate where music still thrived. He was mindful of Holst’s frail health so concentrated on Norfolk and the extended Fens rather than following the others to Lincolnshire. Bartók and Kodaly had used Edison machines in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania and so did Grainger in Lincolnshire for a while, but listening proved to be more honest to musical ears than recording and this made a difference to accuracy.

Track 6 [Chaconne allegro molto 4:14] is Holst’s real voice with glorious authority in his special way. The way in which the movement opens would remind anyone of Britten’s Op.34 – he was that far ahead in commanding the orchestra. Nicholas Braithwaite is the perfect ‘midwife’ of this startling stuff even though he is from a different generation. Braithwaite is the right man also for the Intermezzo [2:57] too because the apparently VW-esque piece is a dazzling display of something more. This applies as well to the last part, a March of some speed lasting only 3:01. Yet here we are at the emergence of a great composer if one truly listens to what Holst put into a mere 10 minutes of music. With so much going on it’s quite astonishing.

Holst’s strong voice in the Hampshire Suite Op.28 No.2 (1911) is very close to VW’s subject matter. True, there are some smatterings of Elgar but, I suggest, mostly because Holst liked a processional format for some of his most profound music and VW had seen the value of folk music for tight organisation. In this way both composers were able to ditch the lure of Wagner and write very important music; just as Bartók and Kodaly did. The only problem I have with the ‘Hampshire Suite’ on this CD is that we don’t have Holst’s own orchestration. That said, Jacob was ever sound of judgement so just listen and be thankful that latter-day recomposition types didn’t spoil this lovely re-issue.

A Moorside Suite (1928) is mature Holst, and Jacob used the harmonic subtleties of the composer’s basic score to explore what the wind-band versions sometimes conceal. Nicholas Braithwaite gets every bit of pacing and the dynamics spot-on. Lovely. Unfortunately the recording engineer in the list above set the dynamics low. To get the very best of this gorgeous work means upping the volume.

I must say that hearing this CD over a period on different equipment changed my view of just how quickly the composer found his unique voice and what a brilliant conductor Nicholas Braithwaite is.

As usual, I advise a good outboard DAC such as the Beresford Mk. 2 or 3 if one is to hear every dot and jot of Lyrita’s fidelity in a display of how a composer moved from struggle to find his voice very quickly and imitating no-one.

This is not a release for casual listeners but absolutely essential to those who want to understand genius in a realistic way. It displays the evidence of a clear development on the way to ever-increasing originality after ‘The Planets’ until an early death. The influence of Holst, even from examples on this disc, passed to his best friend VW and along many other lines in Britain and abroad. Just listen hard to a lot of Britten and the grossly neglected David Bedford and report back. Also lay siege to Decca to have Holst’s Wolfe Songs and other Argo recordings re-released as part of our heritage - partly paid for by British taxpayers - no matter what age you are.

Off the soap box and back to this release. Quite simply, buy it. Play it through good equipment and enjoy the progress of genius from struggle to mastery. It is played by the LPO on top form under Nicholas Braithwaite without any showing off but with a mastery to match that of the composer.

Stephen Hall

see also review by Rob Barnett


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