Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Cotswolds Symphony (1902) [23.11]
A Winter Idyll (1897) [9.01]
Walt Whitman Overture (1899) [7.21]
Indra (1903) [15.46]
Japanese Suite (1915) [10.17]
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 11-12 October 2011
NAXOS 8.572914 [65.55]
Imogen Holst has a great deal to answer for. She adored her father and after his death wrote two books about him, one a biography and the other a book on his music. The latter was published in 1950 and did untold damage to the reputation of his earlier music up to and including The Planets. As a fervent disciple of Benjamin Britten, she looked in her father’s music for signs of ‘modernist’ trends that would lead to the renaissance of British music, as she saw it, in the works of Britten and the post-Second World War generation of British composers. Works that did not show such signs she relegated to the category of failures, and that included nearly all his early music including four of the five pieces included on this enterprising disc. She talks of “his apprenticeship” as “long and painful”, but there is no sign of pain in any of this music. She describes the Walt Whitman Overture as “an attempt to convey what Whitman’s poetry had meant to him, but his intentions were wrecked by wallowing. It is a thick and brassy work, its voluptuous chords moving chromatically outwards with marcato deliberation.” In fact what we hear here is a delightfully upbeat reaction to the outdoor aspect of Whitman. Although it is clearly an early piece with no obvious signs of what we now would regard as characteristic Holst, it is at least as good a piece as Elgar’s early Froissart and technically a good deal better than the kind of music that Vaughan Williams was writing at the time - and which has also recently been triumphantly revived and vindicated.
She describes the Cotswolds Symphony as having “nothing to build upon except the imitation Tudor heartiness of Edward German.” Now that we know German’s music better, we can see that there was a great deal more to him than mock-Tudor pastiche; but the description does the symphony no favours either. It is a magnificent piece, not profound perhaps, but full of joie de vivre and showing an expert command of the orchestra which was to remain with Holst all his life. And the slow movement, an elegy in memory of William Morris, which even Imogen Holst admits has “moments”, is a heartfelt tribute to a figure whom we nowadays remember principally as an artist and designer but whom Holst also respected as a social reformer. It is typical that his daughter selects for comment the appearance here of the phrase senza espress which she sees as “the beginning of a line of thought that was to lead him through the ‘dead’ pp of Neptune to the mysterious monotony of Egdon Heath.” She regards Egdon Heath as one of the greatest of her father’s works, but there is nothing of that ‘monotony’ -an odd choice of word - anywhere in the Cotswolds Symphony whose music is never other than totally life-affirming.
Regarding the Winter Idyll, which she includes in the category her father called his ‘early horrors,’ Imogen Holst says that it makes “doleful reading” and describes the music as “borrowed from Grieg”. Again, one could hardly imagine a more inaccurate description; there is almost nothing in Grieg - except possibly some of the passages from the unfinished opera Olav Trygvason - that has the same forcefulness as Holst demonstrates here. It is not idyllic music, that is true, if one imagines ‘idyll’ to imply a Delius-like meditation on nature. Instead we have a depiction of winter in all its facets, outdoor games and all. Although it is an earlier work than anything else on this disc, there are hints here of the future Holst style including a beautiful unaccompanied cor anglais solo.
Indra was the first work that Holst wrote after falling under the influence of his studies of Sanskrit literature. The music here immediately sounds much more redolent of the composer as he was to develop, although Imogen Holst sourly observes that “there is very little trace of a newly discovered world of thought in this particular manifestation of the god or rain and storm.” All right, the opening is rather Wagnerian in tone, but there is an excitement and assurance to the writing that goes a great deal further than mere imitation. Soon (2.58) we hear a passage in parallel thirds on the woodwind which anticipates a similar episode in Venus which returns even more memorably at 12.30.
The Japanese Suite is a much later work, written indeed at the same time as The Planets, but Imogen Holst had very little good to say about this either: “most of it is disappointing”. In fact it is absolutely gorgeous music, as we discovered when Sir Adrian Boult recorded it for a 1971 Lyrita LP compilation, with the opening Song of the fisherman a most beautiful melody - it is not clear how genuinely Japanese the tunes actually are. Imogen Holst in her briefly dismissive description does not even mention this passage. The orchestration throughout is delightful, with just a dusting of orientalism to leaven the mix. Boult’s recording brought more passionate string playing to the Song of the fisherman, but Falletta points up the many orchestral felicities with greater point, helped by a rather clearer recorded sound.
What made Imogen Holst’s book so damaging - and it is worth plugging away at its faults - she made no substantial revisions when the second edition cited here was published in 1968, although a third edition was published posthumously in 1986 - was the fact that when it was originally written all these works except the Japanese Suite remained unpublished and in manuscript, so there was no prospect of anybody being able to look at the scores and decide whether she was right or wrong in her dismissal of them. However towards the end of her life, and more so since her death in 1984, the music has slowly been creeping back into the light of day. In fact all of the works on this disc have been recorded before - the Japanese Suite by Boult, the Winter Idyll and Indra by David Atherton in 1993 (all now re-released on Lyrita), and the Walt Whitman Overture and complete Cotswolds Symphony by Douglas Bostock even more recently. It has to be said that all of these earlier releases are at least equalled if not surpassed by these superlative performances under Falletta, who makes it clear that she is certain that this music needs absolutely no apology to be made for it. The orchestral playing is better than in the Bostock recordings made in Munich, extremely valuable as those were; Bostock is considerably slower in the symphony. Falletta has a more sympathetic touch than Atherton. I would not be without Boult’s reading of the Japanese Suite - now in its reissue coupled with Boult’s superlative other recordings of Holst for Lyrita - but this is the only point at which this superb disc need fear any challenge.
There is still far too much Holst that remains unavailable, which is an unforgivable slight on the reputation of one of Britain’s major composers. The BBC broadcast a complete performance of the genuinely funny opera The Perfect Fool under Vernon Handley in 1995 with a nearly ideal cast, but this performance remains unreleased - although it can be heard on the internet - and we still await a commercial recording of this major work. We have only ever had two brief excerpts from the grand opera Sita, written during the years when Holst’s genius was reaching its maturity. Hilary Davan Wetton put us in his debt by recording the complete Golden Goose and The morning of the year some fifteen years ago, but these seem to be no longer available. There are no currently available recordings either of the complete Welsh folksong arrangements - there was once a briefly available LP - which Holst made towards the end of his life, although they are marvels of re-imagination of the traditional melodies. We have never had an absolutely complete recording of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda: Willcocks - also no longer available - omitted some of the best movements, such as the male-voice Hymn to Agni. The magnificent Hecuba’s lament is also needed. This is to ignore the unpublished works. Such a situation is an absolute disgrace which record companies should address urgently - and never mind the brickbats cast at the music by the composer’s daughter.
In the meantime, we should be most grateful for this superb compilation which, I hope, will introduce purchasers to some really worthwhile and rewarding music. I wish it all possible success.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Holst review index
Reviews on Holst recordings on Naxos
Some really worthwhile and rewarding music. I wish this disc all possible success.