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From Ocean’s Floor


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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 Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live and in rehearsal: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 15 March 2012 (Holst), 17 March 2011 (Sea Drift); BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford, 4 February 2012 (Cynara).
Full sung texts included
HALLÉ CD HLL7535 [62:25]

The Hallé on its own label has been releasing a number of splendid recordings most of which have been live with some material taken from rehearsal sessions. This latest offering comprises shamefully neglected music from Holst and Delius with the latter’s Cynara a virtually forgotten score.
The opening work, The Hymn of Jesus, Op. 37, penned by Holst in 1917 and introduced in 1920, was at one time regularly performed. Considered a masterpiece by some the score is programmed far less often these days. It represents Holst’s creative and humanitarian reaction to the horrors and the suffering of the Great War. It seems that Holst was especially affected by the sickening slaughter at the Battle of the Somme and this may have been a major stimulus for the work. The Prelude to The Hymn of Jesus is a setting of the Latin texts Vexilla regis and Pange lingua by the poet and hymnodist Venantius Fortunatus. In the main body of the score the Hymn employs a text from the Apocryphal Acts of St. John that Holst himself translated from the Greek. With its opening based on plainsong melodies commenced by trombones and followed by the cor anglais the Prelude takes on an atmospheric character reminding me of In the Fen Country and the Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 by Holst’s friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. The entrance of the sopranos casts a compelling spell on the breathtaking proceedings. Right from the words ‘Glory to Thee, Father’ at the beginning of the Hymn section the combined choral and orchestra performance maintains an elevated level of a near-spiritual quality. The result is quite compelling. I found the sound quality from the Bridgewater Hall first class being especially well balanced. My 1990 St. Jude’s Church, London account of The Hymn of Jesus performed by theLondon Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Richard Hickox on Chandos has served me well for a number of years but this new Hallé recording under Sir Mark Elder with its additional atmosphere and intensity now takes precedence.
The next work Delius’s Sea Drift for baritone, chorus and orchestra from 1903/04 is a setting of verse by Walt Whitman; a poet who was extremely fashionable at that time.

Delius uses text taken mainly from the Whitman poem ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ which relates a tragic tale of the love and pain of separation, through a boy’s eyes, of two nesting seagulls until one day the she-bird flew off and never returned.

A work that has also been judged as a masterwork although shamelessly neglected in recent times Sea Drift is a substantial score lasting twenty-seven minutes here. I reported from the Bridgewater Hall at this actual performance of Sea Drift given in March 2011 with the Hallé joined by Roderick Williams and Hallé Choir. The Hallé and Sir Mark were clearly inspired by the quality of the writing,rising to the occasion with sublime effect. The rocking motion of the sea waves is evoked throughout this heavily atmospheric score, shaped with delicacy and played with a shimmering radiance. I’ve not heard the beautifully blended Hallé Choir in finer voice. The sudden entry of the choir in ‘Shine! Shine! Shine!’ is gloriously rendered and the collaborative section for the choir ‘O rising stars!’ and baritone Roderick Williams ‘Shake out carols!’ is interpreted with poignant intensity. A soloist at his peak, Williams sings with consummate skill; so natural and unaffected. Ideally the choral textures of this Bridgewater Hall performance could be just slightly clearer. I have long admired the 1993 Poole account of Sea Drift performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Choirs with soloist Bryn Terfel conducted by Richard Hickox on Chandos. This new release from the Hallé with Roderick Williams under the baton of Sir Mark Elder contains additional atmosphere and an extraordinary radiance, and has become my first choice. 

The second Delius work is Cynara for solo baritone and orchestra. This setting of a celebrated poem by Ernest Dowson is only very rarely seen on concert programmes; a hidden gem and sadly almost forgotten. Sketched out in 1907, Delius’s score was originally intended as part of his wonderful cycle Songs of Sunset for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Cynara was completed from the sketches in 1929 one of the first products of the partnership between Delius and his amanuensis Eric Fenby. Right from the opening bars the shimmering radiance, so prevalent in Delius, is palpable together with an aching sorrow voiced by the beguiling solo violin part. Atmospheric and highly engaging this is a stunning performance with soloist Roderick Williams impressing once again. He displays such moving expression and crystal clear diction. Recorded in February 2012 at the BBC studios at MediaCityUK, Salford the sound quality is slightly closer than for the other two scores: vividly clear and well balanced.
The heights of excellence that the Hallé forces are consistently achieving under Elder are quite remarkable. Placing a strong emphasis on expression and such judicious pacing the performers seem to relish every note. This is an indispensable addition to any serious collection of music for chorus and orchestra.
Michael Cookson  

See also review by John Quinn

Holst discography & review index