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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Walt Whitman Overture, Op.7, H42 (1899) [7:21]
Symphony in F major, Op.8, H47, The Cotswolds (1899-1900)
A Winter Idyll, H31 (1897) [9:01]
Japanese Suite, Op.33, H126 (1915) [10:17]
Indra - Symphonic Poem, Op.13, H66 (1903) [15:46]
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falleta
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, UK, 11-12 October 2011
NAXOS 8.572914 [65:55]
Many years ago I recall talking to a lady at the Glasgow Promenade
Concerts. We had just heard a fine performance of the ubiquitous
The Planets. She suggested to me that it was unfortunate
that there was not more music like this in the composer’s
catalogue. And I think at that time that she was right. Over
the years, many listeners must have approached some of Holst’s
more ‘neo-classical’ works such as the Fugal
Overture or the Double Concerto or even Egdon Heath
and felt a little disappointment that they seemed to be written
in a completely different musical language to the best known
work. The present CD to a large extent remedies this deficiency.
I am not suggesting that these piece are in way ‘better’
than The Planets - however at least some of them provide
the listener with the ‘romance’ and the ‘Wagnerian’
power of the masterpiece that often seem to be missing in the
I have never liked the Walt Whitman Overture since first
hearing it on the ClassicO CD (CLASSCD284)
with the Münchner Symphoniker conducted by Douglas Bostock.
I cannot really put my finger on the problem.
The Overture was composed in 1899: some seven years after the
great American poet had died. Listeners will know that at that
time Whitman had been ‘discovered’ by British composers
including RVW whose Towards the Unknown Region, and Sea
Symphony used texts derived from the poet’s Leaves
of Grass. Holst himself would later compose The Mystic
Trumpeter and the Dirge for Two Veterans based on
The Overture is fairly and squarely composed in a Germanic style
with a huge hat tip to Wagner. It just seems a little overblown
for my taste - I think perhaps because it tends to play down
the mystical side of the poet’s work. Yet it is an exciting
piece that deserves an occasional airing at orchestral concerts.
The Cotswolds Symphony was a work that I always wanted
to hear. Yet, I fear that I was a little disappointed when I
heard it performed on the above-mentioned ClassicO CD. I felt
that it did not quite paint a musical picture of that fair region
Gustav Holst wrote the work on the cusp of the new century -
between 1899 and 1900. It was completed at Skegness in Lincolnshire.
At this time the composer was a trombonist in the Carl Rosa
Orchestra as well as the Scottish Orchestra. The symphony was
duly performed in 1902 by the enterprising Sir Dan Godfrey and
the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra.
The work is written in four stylistically unbalanced movements
and I think that this spoils this work for me. The opening movement
is somewhat rusticated - with lots of allusions (if not direct
quotes from) to English folk music. It is a ‘march’
that fairly romps along.
The second movement is the deeply moving Elegy (In Memoriam
William Morris). This is a shadowy, unsmiling work that
is funereal in its exposition. It is conceived as a processional-
with a massive climax in the middle section. I am not a huge
fan of Morris’s escapism; however there is nothing of
the daydream about this music. I guess that it can be used as
a stand-alone. Suggestions have been made that this is really
the composer’s response to the Boer War, rather than to
The equilibrium is wrenched back to lighter matters with the
‘scherzo’ which balances the ‘will o’
the wisp’ with a little ‘clod-hopping’. It
is a good essay in creating all the fun of the ‘fairground’.
There are a few moments of a serious nature. Lighter matters
this movement may represent, but this is not ‘light music’
in any commonly accepted sense.
The ‘finale’ is a joy. It is a fusion of the world
of folk-music once again and of Johannes Brahms. Yet this is
well-written and Lewis Foreman has suggested that it has all
the trappings of ‘a harvest hymn, a celebration at the
end of the country people’s annual cycle’. All in
all it is an interesting work, if somewhat lacking in unity.
A Winter Idyll is a short tone-poem composed in 1897
whilst the composer was studying at the Royal College of Music.
Imogen Holst has noted that her father saw his musical training
as running in a trajectory from Mendelssohn, Grieg and Wagner.
Certainly there are nods towards ‘Fingal’s Cave’
in this present work. She adds that Stanford’s influence
is not too far away from some of the pages. It is deliciously
romantic and may or may not suggest a winter scene to the listener.
However, it is truly beautiful music reflecting considerable
skill and invention on Holst’s behalf. The work was apparently
never performed in the composer’s lifetime.
I have always felt that Holst’s Japanese Suite
is one of the ‘forgotten gems’ of his opus. In many
ways this romantic piece sits well beside The Planets.
It was composed during 1915 when the composer had taken a break
from the larger work. The impetus was a request from the Japanese
dancer, Michio Ito, who was performing at the Coliseum. He wanted
a work based on Japanese melodies. The story goes that Holst
did not know any so, the dancer whistled a selection.
The Japanese Suite has six-movement that consists of four dances
preceded by a prelude and an interlude at the suite’s
midpoint. I agree with Michael Kennedy who has suggested that
this work does not sound particularly oriental. If I were to
characterise the piece I would suggest that it is very definitely
a spin-off from The Planets. Both ‘Venus’
and ‘Mercury’ are never too far away in mood and
texture. Stravinsky is another model - with The Rite of Spring
It is not known whether the Suite was ever given in its intended
form. However, it received its first performance at a Proms
Concert on 1 September 1919.
Holst developed his interest in Indian philosophy at the turn
of the twentieth-century. Keith Anderson suggests that this
was perhaps through his father’s second wife who was a
theosophist. This interest resulted in a number of important
works including the well-known songs from the Rig Veda,
the operas Savitri and Sita and the present work
Indra, Symphonic Poem, Op. 13.
This impressive tone-poem was composed in 1903 and is based
on the legend of the Indian god of the heavens, of rain and
storm and his conflict with the demon Vritra. Vritra had been
brought to life by the Brahman Tvashtri to avenge the death
of his son. The legend relates how the demon was eventually
defeated by Indra with the help of Vishnu. The drought that
had been caused by Vritra is finally ended - and as the rain
falls the people rejoice.
What is most remarkable about this work is the sheer brilliance
of the orchestration. Imogen Holst noted the contrasts between
the quieter sections and the more ‘bombastic’ music.
It is a score that was certainly ahead of its time - at least
in British music. It can be listened to without reference to
the myth and can be seen as a contrast between cool, impressionistic
music and aggressive passages that are more Wagnerian or perhaps
Straussian than the music that Holst would come to write in
later years. It is a stunning work that does not deserve its
obscurity. On a personal note it is one of my favourite Holst
The sound quality of this disc is excellent - as is expected
from Naxos. The Ulster Orchestra under their Principal Conductor
JoAnn Falletta give an authoritative account of these scores.
I would have liked slightly more detailed liner notes. Lewis
Foreman’s for the ClassicO editions of the ‘Cotswolds’
Symphony are a model of their kind.
All of the works presented here have already been recorded in
the past, either on Lyrita under Sir Adrian Boult (review),
Nicholas Braithwaite (review)
or David Atherton (review)
and on ClassicO (review)
and Alto (review)
with Douglas Bostock.
It would be invidious to suggest which recording was ‘better’
than the other. Holst enthusiasts will demand this new CD to
sit alongside the earlier releases. It is encouraging that Naxos
has chosen to record these relatively rare, but extremely worthy
pieces. This CD will appeal strongly to all those people who
long for more of the same when it comes to The Planets
… or at least music stylistically analogous to that work.
See also review by Paul
of Holst recordings on Naxos