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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Orchestral Works - Vol. 1
The Ballet from ‘The Perfect Fool’ (1918-22) [11:32]
The Golden Goose - a choral ballet (1926) [24:50]
The Lure – ballet music (1921) [10:15]
The Morning of the Year - a choral ballet (1926-27) [21:02]
Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
rec. 1-2 July 2008, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. DSD
CHANDOS CHSA5069 [67:42]
Experience Classicsonline

With the death of Richard Hickox this disc will be the only volume in the intended Chandos Holst series unless another conductor takes over. This utterly splendid disc makes Richard’s passing all the more lamentable. It is in fact the finest Holst disc in years. Otherwise one needs to look back to the Lyrita recordings on SRCD 222 (Boult), 223 (Imogen Holst) and 209 (David Atherton) for anything anywhere near as good. Also don’t forget the essential Decca collection. Sadly there is no sign as yet of recordings of his complete operas: Sita and The Perfect Fool.

The Ballet music from The Perfect Fool comprises elemental dances from the opera which itself runs to about 75-80 minutes – ideal for a CD project. Chandos provide a deeply pleasing and vivacious recording – one of their very best. It delivers a palette of detailing stimulatingly placed across the aural span. The brass are imperiously emphatic and the more feline touches - such as the soft and cool flute playing - are rendered with touching expression. If you already enjoy Dukas’s L’Apprenti Sorcier or Chabrier’s España or Holst’s The Planets then this is something you must get to know. The classic Decca Boult recording of the ballet music is brilliant but was made in the 1960s. Hickox’s is every bit its equal but basks in contemporary sound. Never mind that the full fairytale opera with its complement of wizards, narcoleptic fools, princesses and elemental spirits pokes fun at Verdi and Wagner clichés; these bejewelled dances are immensely enjoyable in their own right. By the way, the opera itself is lots of fun as those who heard the Groves (1972) and Handley (Christmas Day, 1995) broadcasts will attest. In terms of character you might bracket it with RVW’s Poisoned Kiss­: entertaining, brilliant and touching.

In practice The Perfect Fool dances are the most familiar pieces here. The other scores are largely unknown. The two choral ballets are new to CD (see footnote). If you recall a recording of The Golden Goose it’s Imogen Holst’s version minus chorus on SRCD 223. Also sans chorus is The Morning of the Year dances on SRCD 209 – the same disc includes the ballet music from The Lure. The Golden Goose score is in seven  tracks. It’s a score in which Holst’s folk-song manner is present as it is in his Somerset Rhapsody – see Boult-Holst Lyrita disc. This is not the end of the story because other streams flow in including a Tippett-like delicacy (near the start), a proud bluff manner: part RVW and part de Falla’s Tricorne and a wassailing beguilement. The singing is precise yet springy and wonderfully attentive to dynamics and word-shaping. There’s also a ready sense of humour evident – how about the refrain: “I shan’t get home in time to make my old man’s dinner tonight!” It’s not all broad humour though – listen to the Neptune-ethereal singing at 3:44 on tr. 6. At tr. 9 the voice of the solo violin rises in a pristine dancing delicacy – which reminded me a little of Holst’s ascetic Four Songs for voice and violin (1916). The Lure is memorable for the satisfying shark-skin abrasion of the strangely Hispanic brass playing, its music-box grace (4:40) and a gorgeously Rimskian swell (5:40). The xylophone punctuation in the more exuberant brass recalled similar effects in Hanson’s first two symphonies and Lament for Beowulf. Finally The Morning of the Year brings us back to the choir and orchestra. This is a somewhat lower key score but has its charms. Its folkdance feeling is consistent with the dedication - which is to the English Folk Dance Society. In this sense it recalls one of RVW’s few unrecorded scores: the large-scale Folk Songs of the Four Seasons written for a Women’s Institute extravaganza in the 1950s and rarely heard since. Holst is a degree more nuanced and mystical. In the penultimate segment the slowly accelerating swing of voices and orchestra into dance suggests that William Mathias knew the score before writing his This Worldes’s Joie. This mood can be contrasted with the asceticism of tr. 14 with its echoes of Betelgeuse from Holst’s Humbert Wolfe Songs and the pantheistic mysteries of The Hymn of Jesus recalled in the first segment of the ballet.

I listened to this in conventional CD mode but those who have SACD are in for an even more intense experience.

Richard Hickox died in the middle of a sequence of sessions to record Holst’s A Choral Symphony – a sequence of Keats-settings.

The listening experience of this disc is completed in princely style with full texts reproduced in the booklet. There’s also an attentive and authoritative note by Colin Matthews who has worked on many Holst scores including several used here.

Rob Barnett

I am grateful to Colin Mackie for pointing out my mistake in claiming that this is the first time that 'The Golden Goose' and 'The Morning of the Year' have appeared on disc. Hyperion released a CD with these two Choral Ballets coupled with 'King Estmere'(An Old English Ballad for Chorus and Orchestra) recorded in 1995 with the Guildford Choral Society and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton(CDA66784)(nla). RB  


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