This latest release from EM Records must break some kind of record because the date of recording is quite correct: the sessions for this disc took place in mid-October 2011 and I’m typing this review exactly one month to the day later. Thanks to speedy production work here is the finished article, just in time to be a welcome addition to the Christmas stocking of any self-respecting lover of English music. And let me make it clear straightaway that there is nothing about this release that feels rushed. The recordings themselves are very good and there’s an excellent booklet.
So, if our hypothetical English music-lover does unwrap this CD on Christmas morning, what will he or she get? Well, principally they’ll get the chance to hear a most interesting work by Holst which has lain in obscurity for some eighty years.
Briefly, the background, as related in Em Marshall-Luck’s admirable booklet note, is that in 1927 Holst was asked by Dr. George Bell, then the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, to participate in a novel project. Bell wanted to revive the medieval practice of enacting Mystery Plays in churches and wished to put on such a play in the nave at Canterbury. The poet, John Masefield, was asked to write the text with Holst to provide the music. The result was a narration interspersed with seven musical numbers – “seven simple but effective and tuneful songs”, as Em Marshall-Luck accurately describes the score. The Coming of Christ was duly performed in Canterbury Cathedral at Whitsun 1928 before substantial audiences but seems to have fallen into complete neglect thereafter – it receives but a passing mention in Imogen Holst’s 1974 book on her father. It was revived for a first modern performance at the English Music Festival in May 2010. This was followed by a London performance in November 2010 (review), given by largely the same forces that perform on this recording – there was a different reciter at the London performance.
The musical forces required comprise SATB chorus – though quite a bit of the music is for unison voices – with an accompaniment of strings, organ, piano, trumpet and, in the last movement, tubular bells. The music is, for the most part, quite straightforward though the third and sixth numbers are more elaborate, and it seems to me that though folk tunes may not be used - I’m unsure on this point – the melodies have a directness of expression that marks them out as, if not folk-influenced, certainly music of the people. Interestingly, Holst’s pupils from Morley College, as well as from St. Paul’s Girls’ School, took part in the Canterbury performance and Imogen Holst speaks of this as “the Morleyite’s most ambitious effort.” The style of the music is economical – in fact, there’s not a wasted note – and the accompaniment is often quite spare.
It seems as if Holst wanted his music to speak easily and directly to a mass and possibly musically unsophisticated audience. So, for example, the first musical number, ‘First Song of the Host of Heaven’ is largely for unison voices; it’s only in the third and final stanza that fairly straightforward SATB harmony is adopted. The next piece, ‘Song of the Four Angels’ is similarly uncomplicated, requiring just four male voices. It’s in the third piece, ‘Second Song of the Host of Heaven’ that the music becomes more involved and more dramatic. However, in the very next piece, ‘First Song of the Kings’ heard attacca here, Holst reverts to straightforward writing for unison male voices, accompanied by piano and the same forces deliver the ‘Second Song of the Kings’, a swinging little march, which recurs later in the work.
The most elaborate movement by far – and the longest – is ‘The Antiphonal’, which follows the Angel’s announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds. In this piece the musical writing is much more varied, the harmonic language is more complex than elsewhere in the piece and the instrumental scoring is at its fullest – only the bells are not heard. The bells are reserved for the concluding number, ‘The Song of the Coming of Christ’ and Holst uses the bells most effectively. This final piece is a strophic hymn of praise. The melody is a solid tune, very English in character and very reassuring. With the bells adorning the texture it makes a joyful ending and one suspects that an audience or congregation could easily pick up the tune and join in.
Interestingly, though Holst’s music is relatively straightforward the same cannot be said of Masefield’s words, which are much more elaborate at times. I wonder how easy the Canterbury audiences may have found it to follow the words. The spoken words are not provided in the booklet and for all Robert Hardy’s skills – of which more in a moment – I didn’t find it easy to grasp them all first time round. That shouldn’t be taken as a criticism: to my ears the words seem to convey rather well the style and literary ambience of a medieval Mystery Play. For this recording the spoken text has been reduced – by about half, I believe – by Em Marshall-Luck. Without access to the full text I can’t judge what has been omitted but it seems to me that what we hear coheres well and it certainly dovetails with the musical numbers. There’s about 15 minutes of speech in this performance.
The success of the spoken element is a tribute to Robert Hardy. Sometimes in the past I’ve found his style of delivery a bit florid and overdone. That’s emphatically not the case here. It’s hugely beneficial to have an actor involved who is very experienced in radio acting for Hardy understands firstly how to use a microphone and secondly how to colour the words so as to paint an aural picture for the listeners. Thus he’s very successful in the first stretch of speech, where Masefield’s text is particularly image-rich; Hardy puts over the words, which aren’t easy to grasp, very well, leading the listener on and skilfully using the pace and tone of his delivery. He’s masterly in the passage where he assumes the characters of the three kings – ‘Balthazar the fierce’, ‘Gaspar the wealthy’ and ‘Melchior who seeks below the pit, above the peak to find what is beyond what it seems’. Finally, he’s also excellent in depicting the shepherds with suitably – but not overdone – rustic and Celtic accents. Incidentally, listeners may be disconcerted, as I was, that Masefield introduces the kings before the shepherds, which is the reverse of the order in which they appear in the Gospels but I suppose there’s logic in this in that the kings came from afar and, therefore, had to set off a long time before the birth of Christ.
I couldn’t honestly say that a masterpiece has been unearthed here but The Coming of Christ most certainly did not deserve its decades of neglect and it’s very well worth hearing. It’s given a dedicated performance under the direction of Hilary Davan Wetton, who has made several fine Holst recordings in the past. The accompaniment is well played though I’d have like to hear a bit more of the organ part. The choir does well, though it’s a bit top heavy at times – the tenors and basses sound rather youthful and a bit more vocal weight in those sections might have produced a more consistently balanced choral sound.
Four shorter choral pieces complete the programme. There’s a good, fresh account of the fine Nunc Dimittis and the same can be said of I love my Love. This is a setting for unaccompanied choir taken from Six Choral Folksongs. Holst uses a tune collected in Cornwall and what a lovely, expressive melody it is. The Two Psalms for chorus, strings and organ are well known, and rightly so. Here again I felt there wasn’t always quite enough depth of tone in the men’s voices – and the tenor soloist in Psalm 86, heard also briefly in The Coming of Christ, is pallid, I’m afraid – also the organ doesn’t register as well as one would like ideally. But Mr Davan Wetton and his musicians are committed advocates for these pieces as, indeed, they are throughout the programme.
How fitting that the recording should have been made in the school where Holst taught for so many years and that it should have involved the present day members of the very choir that he directed and that took part in the first performance of The Coming of Christ. The English Music Festival was very enterprising in reviving this work in 2010 and EM Records are to be congratulated in making the piece available now to a much wider audience through this disc, which it is a pleasure to commend to all admirers of Holst in particular and of English music in general
See also review by Rob Barnett