Imogen Holst, the daughter and biographer of Gustav Holst, was, in her own right, an important figure in British musical life for several decades in the twentieth century. She is remembered, inter alia
, as the founder of The Purcell Consort of Voices, as an assistant to Benjamin Britten and as an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival (1956-1977). However, her own musical compositions have received limited attention. Reviewing
a disc devoted to her chamber music for strings in 2009, Rob Barnett expressed the hope that there would be more recordings of her music and, thanks to Graham Ross and the estimable Clare College choir, here is a disc of her vocal music.
She was a pupil of Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music and, as Christopher Tinker relates in his useful booklet note, her Mass in A minor was “written under the guidance” of RVW. I’m sure that anyone who responds to RVW’s Mass in G minor will approve of Imogen Holst’s Mass setting for unaccompanied choir. It’s no mere clone of the Vaughan Williams work, however, and the scale isn’t quite as ambitious. The modal Kyrie is lovely and the Credo displays great confidence in handling the choral medium. The tranquil, prayerful setting of the Agnus Dei is rightly singled out for special mention in the notes. I got the feeling that there were no wasted notes in this concise setting; I hope this fine recording will lead to some of our cathedral choirs taking it into their repertoire.
Everything in this programme appears on disc for the first time so all the music was new to me with the exception of the Britten. A Hymne to Christ
is a homophonic setting of words by John Donne. It’s a compact setting – there are no word repetitions – and perhaps the music is a trifle understated given the rich imagery of Donne’s words. Nonetheless I was impressed by the piece. There’s rather more word painting in Three Psalms, a composition for SATB choir and strings. The writing here is a bit more dissonant and, as befits the tone of the psalms in question – Psalms 80, 56 and 91 – there’s more drama in the music than we have heard hitherto. Christopher Tinker describes the string writing as “delicate”. I’m not quite sure I’d choose that word but the accompaniment is fairly restrained; the spotlight is thrown on the singers and the words they are putting across.
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow
was written at Britten’s request for the 1951 Aldeburgh Festival. Holst set some poems by John Keats for female voices (SSA) with harp accompaniment – apparently, this was the only time she wrote for the instrument. You can’t help wondering if the scoring was a nod towards Britten’s own A Ceremony of Carols
, though it’s not as adventurous a work, especially as regards the use of the harp; the accompaniment is much less flamboyant than in Britten’s piece. The scoring results in textures that are delightfully crisp and clear and the settings are confident and charming. My attention was caught particularly by the rather wintry ‘O sorrow’ and by the delicate and soothing ‘Lullaby’.
Hallo my fancy, wither wilt thou go?
was written to mark the tenth anniversary of The Purcell Consort of Voices. The piece, which is for unaccompanied SATB choir, contains music that is much the most complex and ambitious on the disc. The text, a poem by the Scot, William Cleland (?1661-1689) is ambitious too and Holst’s music seems to me to be as imaginative as the words she set. It’s a difficult piece to perform, I’m sure, but like everything else in this programme, the Clare College singers deliver a splendidly assured performance.
Imogen Holst orchestrated Rejoice in the Lamb
at Britten’s specific request for the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. I suppose I should come clean and say that this piece has never really appealed to me; for one thing, Christopher Smart’s often-eccentric words are an obstacle. The orchestral scoring is a success, I think, showing the work in a fresh light without drawing attention to itself excessively. The arrangement adds new colours and, thereby, new perspectives. I especially enjoyed the substantial clarinet part in ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’
, which is highly effective. The four solos are sung by members of the choir and all do well.
I think this may be the first recording that Graham Ross has made with the Clare College choir since succeeding Tim Brown as Director of Music and it’s good that he’s combined the choir with his Dmitri Ensemble. Both the singing and playing on this disc are extremely fine and the performances are presented in excellent sound. The presentation is lavish, with a beautifully produced booklet containing several very good photographs of Imogen Holst. The only slight quibble I’d raise is to question the value of including illustrations of a couple of pages of her musical manuscripts but reproduced in such small images that one can’t really see them very clearly.
It’s very pleasing that Imogen Holst’s fastidiously crafted and enjoyable choral music has been committed to disc and it’s hard to imagine that it could have received better advocacy.