Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
CD 1
A Somerset Rhapsody op.21 (1906/1907) [9:41]
Brook Green Suite (1933) [6:25]
Ballet Music: The Perfect Fool op.39 (1918/1922) [10:42]
Suite: The Planets op.32 (1914/1916) [48:33]
CD 2
Suite No.2 in F, for military band op.28/2 (1911) [12:24]
St Paul’s Suite op.29/1 (1913) [19:39]
Egdon Heath op.47 [14:45]
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Group Two) op.26/2 (1909) [13:52]
A Choral Fantasia op.51 (1930) [17:14]
Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Norman del Mar (Somerset Rhapsody and Brook Green)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (Fool and Egdon Heath);
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (Planets);
Central Band of the RAF/Wing Commander Eric Banks (2nd Suite);
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent (St Paul’s);
London Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Rig Veda);
Janet Baker (mezzo soprano), Ian Partridge (tenor), Purcell Singers (chorus master: Ralph Downes), English Chamber Orchestra/Imogen Holst (Choral Fantasia)

EMI CLASSICS 6278982 [75:22 + 70:55]

In Holst’s centenary year the BBC broadcast almost every note he wrote and one looked forward to a wider dissemination of his music in the concert hall, but it has, so far, failed to happen. Why this is so is impossible to understand, unless it’s simply the concert promoter’s constant refusal to programme English music. Sales of recordings of Holst’s music, and the fact that more are being made, proves that people want to hear it. Not all those who buy the CDs will necessarily attend a concert but a fair proportion will. Until Holst gets a fair representation in concert we must be grateful for the recordings and this compilation might win him a few more converts.

This is a most intelligent collection of both works and performances, mixing the older school with the more modern. Starting with Holst in folksong mode, A Somerset Rhapsody is given a splendid performance by del Mar, which shows a sure sense of purpose and has a marvellously joyous march episode in the middle. The Brook Green Suite is boisterous and great fun. What follows comes from almost every period in Holst’s life between these two works.

The highlight of the set is Boult’s final recording of The Planets. This truly hair-raising account of this great music was released to celebrate the conductor’s 90th birthday. Recorded nearly 60 years after Boult had conducted the première, on 29 September 1918, this performance has all the fire and passion you could want, and the work appears fresh and feels newly minted. After the première, Holst wrote on Boult’s score of the work, "This score is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused The Planets to shine in public and so earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst." And Boult still makes this music shine for the public. This performance is simply too good to miss and should be on every record shelf.

The second CD starts with a very sprightly account of the 2nd Military Band Suite which is followed by a very agile performance of the St Paul’s Suite, for which Sargent uses a very large string orchestra so the intimacy of the work is lost, but it’s very sumptuous. What makes this juxtaposition of works so clever is that both works have the same finale. Sargent is faster but both work well, the lighter touch of the military band is to be preferred here.

For me, Egdon Heath is Holst’s masterpiece. This depiction of Hardy’s “haggard Egdon” is unique amongst Holst’s works. A lifetime of experience is crammed into a mere 28 pages of score, but it’s neither too long, nor too short. It’s just right. It’s a very disturbing listen, one can feel the chill and brooding nature of the landscape. Previn’s reading is perfect, and rivals Boult’s magnificent 1962 account (available as part of a 2 CD set of Holst’s music in the Decca British Music Collection series 470 191-2), and the interpretation is as rugged and bitter-sweet as his performance of The Perfect Fool is skittish and hilarious.

I’m very pleased that EMI didn’t go for the obvious choral works to complete this set. The four sets of Choral Songs from the Rig Veda are scored for different combinations of voices and instruments and this 2nd set is for female chorus and orchestra. Two meditative movements frame a violent Hymn to the God of Fire. Groves directs a forthright performance and secures fine playing from the LPO, and very good ensemble from the chorus.

The Choral Fantasia was Holst’s last choral work. Written for the Three Choirs Festival, Holst conceived the work as an Organ Concerto, then rethought the piece and set a poem by Robert Bridges for soloists and chorus whilst retaining the prominent organ part. We’ve known this performance for so many years, as the coupling for Wilfred Brown’s transcendental performance of Finzi’s Dies Natalis and it’s good to hear it within the context of a Holst concert. This is an authoritative performance, directed by the composer’s daughter, and the young Janet Baker is radiant.

An important re-issue which serves to show us just how fine a composer Holst was, how varied his works are, and how much we are missing from our concert halls. The transfers are excellent and the sound is magnificent with a huge range. The notes are merely introductory and there are no texts.

Bob Briggs

An important re-issue which serves to show us just how fine a composer Holst was