For many long years Imogen Holst was known as a staunch champion of
her father's music through her writings and conducting. She was also
known as an active Britten amanuensis. Her own achievement as a composer
was long overlooked. Her music secured a first exposure through a recording
of her string quartet (once available on Conifer 4321-15006-2, issued
1990) and more recently through a generously filled disc of her string
chamber music (Court
Lane Music CLM 37601
). The latter proved quite revealing to a number
of music-lovers who then realised that she was a composer to be reckoned
with and one with a distinctive and personal voice.
This new release is entirely devoted to a generous selection of her
choral music mainly focusing on some of her most substantial works in
this particular genre.
The earliest work here is the fairly impressive Mass in A minor
completed under the guidance of Vaughan Williams when the composer was
still a pupil of his at the Royal College of Music. The music is still
somewhat indebted to that of RVW. The music already displays a number
of remarkable qualities such as a sure hand in writing for voices and
a considerable imagination that is totally her own. RVW's masterly Mass
may have served as a model but Imogen Holst's work does not
set out to imitate it slavishly. Quite the contrary; it is simply astonishing
that such superbly crafted music has lain unheard for so long.
The short A Hymne to Christ
on two verses of John Donne's In
what torn ship soever I embark
clearly displays further mastery
in voice handling. This deceptively simple short work is really very
fine and, again, deserves to be much better known.
The Three Psalms
for mixed chorus and strings were composed in
1943. This rather tough piece carries Holst's harmonic thinking another
step further. If the music of A Hymne to Christ
might still be
redolent of Finzi, that of the Three Psalms
rather remind one
of her father in the last stages of his career. On the whole these settings
are rather austere and harmonically tense, the string orchestra being
used quite sparingly but always to telling effect. This impressive work
is certainly the most forward-looking of all those recorded here and
is in full contrast to the lovely Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow
for female voices and harp on texts by John Keats. This beautiful set
was composed at Britten's suggestion and was first performed in Aldeburgh.
The setting for upper voices and harp will have many to think of Britten's
own A Ceremony of Carols
but the choice of texts is, needless
to say, completely different and varied enough so as to allow for a
colourful work, by turns joyful and pensive, easy-going and tender.
As far as I am concerned this quite beautiful piece is the loveliest
work here and a real little gem to which I will return regularly.
Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go?
, composed in 1972 is a work
from the composer's full maturity. Her assured word setting bears ample
proof of the mastery gained over the years. The text by the seventeenth-century
Scottish poet William Cleland again allows for widely varied choral
handling although the whole is “held together” by the recurring
motive Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go?
which helps maintain
These choral works confirm the impression that one may have had from
listening to the aforementioned disc of chamber music for strings: she
was a fully equipped musician and a composer with a definitely personal
musical vision. She had things to say and she knew how to say them.
Britten's festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb
Op.30 for chorus
and organ was composed in 1943 on a commission of the Reverend Walter
Hussey of St Matthew's Church, Northampton. He also commissioned a number
of other composers and artists. Britten chose some fragments from Jubilate
by Christopher Smart; not an obvious choice then although one
may now relish the text without any prejudice, religious or other. However,
for whatever reason, I for one have never been really taken by this
work in its original version with organ. I always instinctively felt
that something was missing to make it entirely satisfying. I know now
what was missing: the orchestra. Britten must have felt the same and
he asked Imogen Holst to make an orchestral version of it for the 1952
Aldeburgh Festival. This she did in a really splendid fashion. She scored
the piece for a chamber orchestra consisting of strings, woodwind, horn,
timpani and a small percussion group. The results are quite astonishing
and I cannot but help ask myself why Britten never thought of scoring
it himself. Whatever the answer, Holst did a wonderful job that must
have pleased Britten. I sincerely hope that Imogen Holst's orchestral
version of Rejoice in the Lamb
will be heard more often.
Everyone here sings and plays with utmost conviction and impeccable
technique. Tanya Houghton's playing in the Keats song cycle is superb
whereas the four soloists in Rejoice in the Lamb
, all from the
chorus, deserve a mention: Cressida Sharp (soprano), Robert Cross (counter-tenor),
Stefan Kennedy (tenor) and Dominic Sedgwick (bass). The recording and
production are excellent.
In short this generously filled release is yet another well deserved
tribute to a distinguished musician whose personal achievement has long
been overlooked and is now being given its due.