Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The wandering scholar, Op.50 [25.24]*
Suite de ballet, Op.10 [19.24]
A song of the night, Op.19/1 [8.31]+
*Ingrid Attrot (soprano) (Alison); *Neill Archer (tenor) (Pierre); *Alan Opie (baritone) (Louis); *Donald Maxwell (bass) (Father Philippe); +Lesley Hatfield (violin)
Northern Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Nicholas’s Hospital, Gosforth, 15-16 May 1996
CHANDOS CHAN 10725X [53.10]
This reissue is part of a tribute from Chandos to Richard Hickox, whose work in the field of British music is so rightly celebrated. Hickox it was who gave us revivals of Holst’s Cloud Messenger, never previously (or subsequently) recorded, and Vaughan Williams’ The Poisoned Kiss, also never recorded but a work of real comic accomplishment. It is a pity that he never got round to recording Holst’s The Perfect Fool, also a work of comic genius; but he did set down this recording of the brief The Wandering Scholar which was Holst’s last opera and also a little gem of a piece. It has been recorded twice before. Steuart Bedford recorded it for EMI in 1975, and this version has been reissued twice on CD; there was also a ‘pirate’ recording conducted by Imogen Holst which was once available on the long-extinct Intaglio label, which derived from a series of Aldeburgh performances in the 1960s but which I have not heard.
Comparisons with Bedford’s recording are very much a matter of swings and roundabouts. In the title role Robert Tear for Bedford was perhaps a little too knowing, a little too arch for the part of the simple wandering scholar; but Neill Archer here doesn’t have the same depth of tone even if he is better than Tear at delivering the short passages of spoken dialogue towards the end. As the curtain falls Clifford Bax’s libretto specifies that he laughs; Tear does this silently, but Archer lets loose a full-bellied roar of derision. This is a mistake. The final moments of the opera, as the farmer takes his errant wife upstairs with a cudgel in his hand and the clear intention of indulging in a session of wife-beating, is uncomfortable enough without any attempt to make the situation comic. This is a case where modern sensibilities have overtaken the original text; the situation is no longer funny.
As the aforementioned errant wife Ingrid Attrot is more full-bodied of voice than the cheeky Norma Burrowes on the old Bedford recording, to the advantage of the music; but her diction is far less clear than that of Burrowes. “Now, do lie flat!” she sings to the priest she is hiding under a bale of straw, but without the text provided in the booklet you would never know it; she lengthens the vowel sounds in a way that is totally unidiomatic. As the lecherous priest Donald Maxwell, who has a fine sense of comic timing, is more personable than was Michael Langdon for Bedford. Langdon was famous for his black bass roles, such as Claggart and Hagen; and although he also had a reputation as a fine comic Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, his voice did not lend itself naturally to geniality. In the smaller role of the farmer Alan Opie has more voice and better tone than Michael Rippon for Bedford, but again Rippon’s diction is clearer. This is despite a ‘mummerset’ accent - the opera is supposed to be set in France!. This is however aided by a rather more immediate recording.
The orchestra under Hickox is superior to the sound of the ECO under Bedford as recorded for EMI twenty years earlier. You can hear considerably more of the delicious detail of Holst’s scoring. The score was edited by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst for its first publication in 1968, and they apparently made “some small alterations and additions for practical reasons” (to quote Colin Matthews). In fact that published score allows for the reduction of the strings to a body of single players, a procedure which might be in line with Britten’s practice at Aldeburgh but which is foreign to the Holst idiom in his later works. Bedford clearly uses that edition - although with a larger body of strings - but the greater depth of sound leads me to suspect that Hickox may have reverted to some of Holst’s original thoughts. The booklet is silent on this point.
What makes the Bedford recording so valuable, however, is the coupling in the later mid-priced EMI reissue. Whereas here Hickox gives us some fairly minor Holst orchestral music, Bedford’s reissue is coupled with David Atherton’s complete recording another late Holst opera, At the Boar’s Head, which is otherwise unobtainable on disc. Hickox’s couplings are much less enticing. The Suite de ballet is an early work, but one which Holst revised in 1912; it is light music, written with a clear eye to commercial success. It does not plumb any depths even though there is a lovely violin solo in the Scène de nuit, played with affection here by Bradley Cresswick.
The Song of the night was written as a companion to the Invocation for cello and orchestra, but while the Invocation is a wonderful piece the Song lacks the same memorable profile. Both these works are available elsewhere; Hickox gives the best available recording of the Suite de ballet, but Lesley Hatfield in the Song of the night is evenly matched with Lorraine McAslan, who gives a fine reading on Lyrita with David Atherton. This disc is not then an essential acquisition except for Hickox fans - of whom there are deservedly many. Nonetheless its reissue is welcome. The booklet, as I have noted, gives the full text of The Wandering Scholar and comprehensive notes.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
This well accoutred reissue is welcome indeed.
Holst review index