RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Hymn of Jesus, Op. 37 (1917-19) [21:55]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Sea Drift (1903-04)* [27:01]
Cynara (1907/1929)** [11:35]
Roderick Williams (baritone)/Hallé Choir/ Hallé Youth Choir/ Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
Rec. live & in rehearsal, 15 March, 2012, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; * live & in rehearsal, 12 March, 2011, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester;** 4 February, 2012, BBC Mediacity, Salford. DDD
HALLÉ CD HLL 7535 [62:25]
Though by no means all the own-label releases by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé have been devoted to English music it’s in that field that their finest work has been most consistently achieved on disc. Here’s another choice example though the pieces by Holst and Delius perhaps sit a little oddly together.
I know of at least three other recordings of Holst’s visionary Hymn of Jesus. There’s Sir Adrian Boult’s pioneering 1962 Decca recording, though the sound on that is by now somewhat dated (review). Much better sonically are the 1977 EMI recording by Sir Charles Groves (review) and the 1990 Chandos version conducted by Richard Hickox, which Len Mullenger rightly described as “full-blooded” (review). Incidentally, by a nice piece of symmetry Hickox was the chorus-master of the London Symphony Chorus at the time they made the Groves recording.
Groves scores a point over Boult and Hickox in having a youth choir - the choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral - to sing the substantial and crucial semi-chorus part. Elder also uses a group of young singers, the estimable Hallé Youth Choir. They make a tremendous contribution, as they have done to some previous Hallé choral recordings. Extravagantly scored for semi-chorus, two SATB choirs and a substantial orchestra, The Hymn of Jesus is a work of blazing originality. I suspect we can get an idea of how important it was to Holst by the fact that the dedicatee was his great friend, Vaughan Williams.
Elder’s performance is thoroughly convincing. There’s a fine feeling of space and mystery in the Prelude; the orchestral playing is as refined as we’d expect from this source. The semi-chorus is a bit more magically distanced than on any of the other recordings, yet their singing has good presence too. When the Hymn proper begins with the entry of the main choirs the music fairly blazes. Later, when Holst sets his mystic dance going in irregular quintuple metre - an inspired idea since it suggests a primitive dance, highly appropriate to the text - the performance has great spirit. The Hallé Choir sings superbly, mixing ardour and finesse as Holst’s quickly-changing musical moods demand. Holst’s extraordinary harmonies at such places as ‘To you who gaze, a lamp am I’ or again at ‘Know in me the word of wisdom’ are splendidly achieved. As for the Youth Choir their many - and important - interjections are all spot-on. With the Hallé playing magnificently this is a very fine performance indeed of Holst’s choral masterpiece. There is applause at the end but, happily, the music is allowed to die away first.
Sea Drift is another visionary work but completely different to The Hymn of Jesus both in style and in concept. It’s another of Delius’s Whitman settings, which received its first performance, in a German translation, in Essen in May 1906. This was as part of a music festival in the city, Calum MacDonald writes in his interesting and detailed booklet note. Essen hosted at least two significant premières at that time because I believe that just three days later Mahler conducted the first performance of his Sixth Symphony in the city, presumably as part of the same festival. It was not until 1908 that Sea Drift was heard in the UK.
Elder leads a distinguished performance. Right from the start the wistful orchestral introduction is beautifully paced and judged. The Hallé Choir, here called upon to sing very different music to the Holst, prove equally adept in this idiom and deliver Delius’s highly individual choral parts splendidly. There’s much sensitive singing from them, such as the passage beginning ‘O rising stars!’, but they do equally well when required to sing out ardently - ‘Shine,! Shine! Shine!’ being one such case.
The baritone solo role is crucial and Roderick Williams offers distinguished singing. His tone is even, firm and focused and, as ever with this fine singer, the words are enunciated with great clarity and an evident full understanding of their meaning. In my experience he always produces his voice evenly throughout its compass - as here - but his top register must be the envy of many baritones. Hear him at ‘He poured forth the meanings’, for example. I’ve previously mentioned the long passage that begins at ‘O rising stars!’ in the context of the choir’s performance but Williams’s emotive singing makes an equally critical contribution to these pages. He’s outstandingly expressive in the passage beginning ‘O reckless despairing carols’ and, if anything, impresses even more in the last section, beginning at ‘O I am very sick and sorrowful’ where the quality of the orchestral accompaniment is simply marvellous. This performance of Sea Drift is of the highest quality from all concerned and clearly it was appreciated greatly by the Manchester audience, though thankfully there’s a decent pause before the ovation begins. Incidentally, another performance of Sea Drift a few days later by the same forces was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Michael Cookson.
There are several good recordings of Sea Drift in the catalogue already and for quite some time the ‘market leader’ has arguably been the Hickox/Terfel recording on Chandos which Brian Wilson rightly praised in its download format (review). That CD has been part of my own collection for many years. Terfel offers a very different listening experience. For one thing he has a much bigger voice and more vocal amplitude than Roderick Williams. There are several occasions in his recording, made under studio conditions, where Terfel takes risks for interpretative emphasis - he’s daringly quiet at ‘This gentle call is for you my love, for you’ for instance. Terfel’s exciting, risk-taking approach may not be to all tastes, however. I continue to admire his recording very much but the more natural, relaxed approach of Roderick Williams is extremely satisfying and suits the music very well indeed.
There haven’t been too many recordings of Cynara so far as I’m aware - and it’s something of a rarity in our concert halls too - but some fine baritones have recorded it. I first got to know it many years ago in the recording by John Shirley-Quirk and that doughty, underrated Delius champion, Sir Charles Groves (review). Originally intended by Delius as part of Songs of Sunset, he decided against including it and the setting remained incomplete for over twenty years. Cynara was one of the first - indeed, I believe the first - of the pieces that Delius was able to complete with the support of Eric Fenby. It’s good, then, that this was one of the works that Fenby recorded for Unicorn-Kanchana in the early 1980s (review). The soloist was Thomas Allen - not then knighted - and his performance is characteristically eloquent and nuanced, though some may feel - as I do - that both he and the orchestra were placed rather too distantly from the microphone. Now Roderick Williams enters the lists with this version, the only item on this new CD to be recorded under studio conditions.
As in Sea Drift Williams gives an eloquent performance, characterised by the same technical qualities such as even, firm tone, sense of line and clarity of diction. He’s very subtle and expressive and the orchestra plays Delius’s sensuous music with refinement and sensitivity. The music briefly flares up at the start of the third and fourth stanzas of Ernest Dowson’s poem but for the most part the writing is lyrical and expansive. This is up to the same extremely high standards that we’ve experienced in the other two works here.
Two different production teams have worked on this disc but whether in the Bridgewater Hall or in the BBC’s new Manchester studios the recorded sound is excellent. So too is the quality of the notes, which are by Michael Kennedy (Holst) and Calum MacDonald. This is a disc that not only maintains but also enhances the very high reputation of Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé forces, especially in English music.
A disc that maintains and enhances the very high reputation of Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé forces
Holst discography & review index
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