Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Two Psalms: 86; 148 H117 (1912) [6:58 + 4:19]
Nunc Dimittis H127 (1915) [3:04]
I love my love (1916) [4:30]
The Coming of Christ H170 (1927) [37:03]
Robert Hardy.(narrator)
Chamber Choir of St Paul’s Girls’ School/Heidi Pegler
City of London Choir; Holst Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
rec. Great Hall of St Paul's Girls’ School, Brook Green, 15 Oct 2011.
world premiere recording
EM RECORDS CD004 [58:54]
Inroads are gradually being made into the extensive amount of his music left in neglect and certainly unrecorded. I have mentioned the two operas. The Perfect Fool is as entertaining as RVW’s The Poisoned Kiss. Then again there is the much grander Sanskrit opera Sita even if Holst self-effacingly dismissed it as “so much Wagnerian bawling”. EM Marshall’s EM Records label now bring his music for The Coming of Christ into the light. It has been heard in recent times but not recorded before. On 21 December 1995 at the end of Radio 3’s Fairest Isle year the BBC broadcast a performance by Barry Wordsworth, the George Mitchell Choir and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
The Coming of Christ sets the words (both spoken and sung) of a now unfashionable author whose books at one time crowded the shelves of libraries and secondhand bookshops. John Masefield has a few musical connections worth commenting on. His poems were set by Moeran (Twilight), Ireland (Sea Fever), Gurney (By A Bierside), Frederick Keel (ballads) and Elgar (So many true Princesses). Ledbury-based composer, Joe Conway, had his Masefield Love Songs cycle premiered in Ledbury late in November 2011. Doreen Carwithen’s orchestral overture ODTAA has been recorded by Chandos (CHAN10365X originally issued as CHAN 9524) and is based on Masefield’s novel of the same name – an acronym for One Damn Thing After Another. The sung words are printed in full in a sensible font in the 20 page insert booklet.
The Holst work - which is inevitably the centre of attention here - arose from a 1927 commission by the Dean of Canterbury, Dr George Bell. He had in mind a mediaeval 'mystery play' for Canterbury Cathedral. As Em Marshall-Luck’s wonderful note reminds us Dr Bell was a committed medievalist was also to commission T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral. The premiere duly took place in Canterbury Cathedral during Whitsun 1928. In Holst’s catalogue the music falls between the Shakespeare Falstaff opera-scene At the Boar’s Head, the ballet The Golden Goose, the dour symphonic poem Egdon Heath and the contemporaneous Moorside Suite (brass band) and the dry muscle-play of the Concerto for Two Violins.
The Coming of Christ is a large-scale work using organ, piano, orchestra, choir, children’s choir and solo singers as well as, in this case, narrator. Here the speaking is done by one of England's most celebrated actors, Robert Hardy who is also a Vice-President of the English Music Festival. He is no stranger to the art or oratory with music. Amongst his many achievements is acting as the orator in Bliss’s Morning Heroes (Shrewsbury Choral Society 2008). Six (5, 7, 9, 12, 14, 16) of the 13 tracks are dedicated to Hardy’s acted narration. In total this runs to 16+ minutes of the total of 37 minutes for The Coming of Christ. Hardy distils and magnifies every opportunity to characterise from crustily defined regional accents with a wrinkle in the voice to brutal iron-ruthlessness for King Baltasar the Fierce to noble Shakespearean oration. This is not a case of speaking over or with the music. Music and speech are contained each in their own tracks. The 21 or so minutes of music is deployed across seven tracks ranging from 0.53 to 7.25. Tim Hawes’ clarion imperious trumpet plays a key role in tracks 6, 15 (adding an aureate descanting nimbus to the exultant singing) and 17 a final valedictory paraph. The First Song of the Host of Heaven was clearly fashioned around the glorious melody to which Holst set the words Bards of Passion and Mirth in the finale of the Keats-based First Choral Symphony. The Second Song includes a soprano solo that recalls an earlier part of the Choral Symphony: Beneath My Palm Trees. The swinging sanguine-positive The First and Second Songs of the Kings makes tactful use of the piano to underpin the men’s voices. The final surgingly plangent Song of the Coming of Christ has a grand symphonic carol feel to its unison weight. This is lent a seasonal glow by the judiciously chiming bells. Wonderful stuff and whetting the appetite for a Cyril Rootham’s grand choral-orchestral Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. I hope that English Music Festival will appraise the Rootham and include it in their future plans.

The present recording was made at St Paul's Girls’ School where Holst had been Director of Music from 1905 until his death in 1934. The conductor, Hilary Davan Wetton was also a Director of Music there and has all the necessary Holst credentials. He recorded Holst’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasia for Hyperion on CDA66660 and later CDH55104. The same label also recorded Holst’s King Estmere, The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year with the Philharmonia on CDA66784. His Evening Watch and other choral pieces including the ravishing Nunc Dimittis are on CDH55170. The same conductor included Holst’s Christmas Day on Naxos 8.572102.
The other items are sung with fine style and joyously splendid glow and blaze in a richly lively acoustic. The Two Psalms are for choir and string orchestra. We have heard them before from EMI and Hyperion. Hyperion recorded both with the same forces and conductor (review) and EMI recorded the composer’s daughter conducting Psalm 86 with the ineffably white-toned Ian Partridge (review). The Nunc Dimittis is simply glorious but then so is the familiar and then increasingly descanted Psalm 148. I love my love takes us into secular territory and is renowned. It is one of the most beautiful settings in the English music library. Two things to say: the counter-pointed singing by the women of the words I love my love and My love loves me are conferred like a lightly dusted kiss. I also noticed that this setting must have formed a model for Percy Grainger in his narrative settings.
This is a strong and indispensable entry in the English music revival and produced for the market with impressive speed and enviable quality.
Rob Barnett
This is a strong and indispensable entry in the English music revival.