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]
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 [55:54]
See also reviews by John Quinn and Rob Barnett
This is the fourth and most ambitious release under the imprimatur of the English Music Festival. Clearly the ‘headline’ work, and the one that will have collectors sniffing the reviewing breeze is The Coming of Christ. Perhaps before venturing my own opinion I should refer to two divergent comments regarding this work; “… Mild and mannered harmonies are allowed to fill whole pages … much of the music is uneventful … a mellow pool of pleasant-sounding flattened sevenths and consecutive fifths and held pedal notes. [Holst] realised he was repeating himself … [this] is the last work he wrote in this all-too-familiar idiom”. Or “it is staggering to think that this seminal work has been so overlooked”. The former quotation is taken from page 99 of the 1st edition of The Music of Gustav Holst published by the OUP in 1951 and written by Imogen Holst. The latter is in the liner written by the driving force behind the English Music Festival – Em Marshall-Luck. Imogen Holst was a famously severe critic of her father’s writing. To a degree this was understandable; she felt that his finest work could only be judged as the masterpieces they undoubtedly are if the lesser works are measured by the same rigorous yardstick. In so doing she cast many fine if not great works into a critical outer darkness. Certainly she would not have considered this work ‘seminal’ – as in “Highly influential in an original way; constituting or providing a basis for further development” [dictionary.com] and indeed if one accepts this definition how something can be both overlooked and seminal is not clear. I am sure Imogen Holst is absolutely right in sensing that by devoting his limited physical resources - composition was always a draining process for the often-ill Holst - so passionately to the requirements of his pupils at St. Paul’s School and the amateurs he loved at Morley College, Thaxted and elsewhere posterity was deprived of a greater number of enduring works. In their place are a sequence of works in the 1920s which are undoubtedly sincere in their conception and execution but lacking the spark of true genius. Think of the choral ballets or the folksong-based At the Boars Head for works which are simply too effortful in their attempts to be light of touch. The Coming of Christ is a sequence of seven choral songs that punctuate a mystery play of that name. What gives the work particular interest is that the revival of the form of a medieval mystery play for performance in an English Cathedral was a cause of considerable religious and moral debate at the time (1927). The text for the play was provided by none other than the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield. Given that the commission came from Canterbury Cathedral it can be seen that this was an event of some significance. The remit for the music limited Holst’s compositional freedom; the performers were amateur – the choir was his beloved Whitsuntide Singers - whilst the venue and the nature of the work dictated a conscious simplicity. Musically what we have is a short instrumental prelude and postlude framing extended spoken scenes linked by simple strophic songs of an often hymn-like character - indeed the final song – The Song of the Coming of Christ – appears in Vaughan Williams’ revised 1931 edition of Songs of Praise as the hymn tune Hillcrest. The finest music by some considerable way is also the longest section – The Antiphonal. Masefield’s sung texts are always well-crafted and poetic and endowed with a simple imagery that is both apt and moving. Holst’s settings are similarly straightforward and apt. I am sure they are a joy to sing – the original sequence of performances played to an audience of over 6000 at its five performances. Of the actors only one was professional, the rest were recruited by Masefield from his Oxford students together with cathedral clergy, teachers and towns-folk. The part of Christ was played by a soldier. Michael Short in his more objective book, Gustav Holst The Man and his Music (OUP 1990), describes the overwhelming impact the piece had on performers and audience alike. But as much as anything this impact would be one of time and place and context. What is unclear from the version presented on the CD is how abbreviated the spoken text is. Here we have some fifteen minutes of straight text punctuated by about twenty-two minutes of music. Marshall-Luck is credited as making the reduction of the Masefield play but more information than that is not offered. The liner quotes an original review that laments the fact that Masefield did not give Holst opportunities for more music from which we can assume the balance of the original was skewed in favour of the spoken word. The multiple acting parts have been condensed into a single role for narrator spoken here with all his considerable oratorical skill by Robert Hardy. He is ideal for this kind of job with perfect diction and a brilliant natural cadence that allows the text to have a rhetorical quality without lapsing into empty gesture. Hardy is brilliant at finding character rather than caricature in his voicing of the various roles. That being said there is something slightly twee in the original dialogue for the shepherds. We are given an ever so slightly socialist outlook but one that never tips over into any kind of serious social comment. Nothing so contentious could ever have sprung from such a pillar of the conservative establishment as the Poet Laureate. For presumably some kind of copyright reasons the complete sung texts are given (in English only) but none of the spoken texts are present. Given that the presented text is an abbreviation and therefore not authentic unexpurgated Masefield I did wonder about the value of any spoken text at all. This is not like Christopher Palmer’s brilliant digest of Walton’s score for Henry V which Palmer subtitled A Shakespeare Scenario. The inclusion of the narrator/orator makes perfect sense because Walton’s score points and dramatises the speech. Here not a single spoken word is accompanied by music – we could enjoy all of Holst’s music without hearing a line of Masefield’s spoken text. As indeed we encounter the vast bulk of incidental music on CD. Because Holst was such a fine craftsman and sincere composer this work is worth hearing but put into context of his great works; Hymn of Jesus, Savitri, Choral Fantasia to name but three off the top of the head it is very small beer and to say otherwise is to inflate its value. I think it is significant to note that Short relates how Masefield requested Holst to expand his score for repeat performances in the following years. For whatever reasons we do not know Holst chose not to. My guess is that he knew that he had done all he could for that score and that to return to it would be a waste of his carefully husbanded compositional energies. Imogen Holst points us to the fact that at the time of this work’s composition he was already formulating his next – and quite possibly single greatest – work Egdon Heath. Nothing could be more removed from the cosy inoffensive warmth of this incidental music than the alienated emotional landscape of that extraordinary piece.
Praise however, to the performers here. Hilary Davan Wetton is a Holst specialist of considerable standing and he presents as fine a performance as one might hope to hear. His amateur City of London Choir are latter-day inheritors of Holst’s own Whitsuntide Singers and one can imagine the composer being delighted by their contribution. The presence of the St. Paul’s Girl’s School Chamber Choir and the fact that the recording was also made at the school add to a sense of aptness. The recording is generally warm and sympathetic – although there is an odd extraneous clunk before the very first note on track one. The voices are favoured over the strings which is fine although the piano which accompanies some of the songs is too recessed for my taste. The tubular bell part Holst wrote at the last moment to increase the celebratory impact of the final chorus is included although again it sounds a tad recessed.
The Coming of Christ is placed last on the disc. The remainder of the programme seems rather arbitrary in its choice. Putting the two Psalm settings of 1912 first rather underlines the worthiness of the main work for these are two very fine pieces of music. Indeed the first – Psalm 86 – is truly inspired and contains many Holstian fingerprints both harmonically and instrumentally – the walking ostinato bass lines just one instance. Davan Wetton directs an impressively dramatic performance, his string players playing with great attack and weight. He is let down significantly by the quality of his tenor soloist taken – I assume – from the choir. This singer sings perfectly reasonably but he is up against other great tenors as recorded including John Mark-Ainsley and the simply superb Ian Partridge. The latter is conducted by Ms Holst who sees the work as far softer-grained than Davan Wetton. Partridge’s effortless flow of silvery tone supports that vision. Actually I prefer the edgier Davan Wetton but if angels sing they probably sound like Ian Partridge. The setting of Psalm 148 has another St Paul’s link in that the adaption of the text was done by the then Head (High) Mistress Frances Gray. A trick was missed here too in that we are given the ‘standard’ mixed voice versions. Apparently Holst did an SSA version for his St Paul’s girls which I do not think has been recorded before. Whatever version is given this is another very fine work exhibiting both craft and considerable beauty. Overall this is probably the best track on the disc in the sense of a fine work well performed. The final two fillers are the 1915 Nunc Dimittis and 1916 folksong setting of I love my love. The former is skilled but functional and the latter superb. The performances here are very fine once again. I would direct collectors towards a superb recital disc entitled Evening Watch on Guild sung by Queen’s College Chapel Choir Cambridge. They include both the two Psalm settings and the Nunc Dimittis although the former are in their organ-only accompaniment versions. These performances emphasise the sacred nature of the works with a choir more overtly ‘church-like’ in its sound. More to the point the entire programme is of stunning variety and interest including more Holst (the eponymous title work), Leighton, Finzi and most interestingly in that company; William Schuman.
I did want to enjoy the main item here more. Sadly, I find myself siding with Imogen Holst – that this fleshes out our knowledge of Holst is not necessarily enough justification for its revival. Surely it is important to accept that an artist of genius – which Holst surely was – is allowed to produce work that is at best workmanlike. The fact that it was effective and took account of the limitations of location and performers is a tribute to the composer’s skill but “effective” alone is surely faint praise indeed. I do not think for one moment if Holst was here now he would say, “this is the best of me …”, Egdon Heath ... ? – well that’s another matter.” I do not want to take away from the English Music Festival or this CD the enormous effort it takes to produce discs of rare music such as this but I do think it is vital that such energies are expended on the most deserving projects. Bearing in mind that the spoken narration accounts for fifteen minutes of the CD’s total playing time we do have a disc of barely forty minutes of music – collectors will decide whether the value of the content outweighs the short playing time. With regret I would say that this is a disc for dedicated Holstians only.
For dedicated Holstians only.