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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
A Fugal Overture op.40 no.1, H151 (1922) [4:52]
A Somerset Rhapsody, op.21 No.2, H87 (1908-9) [9:23]
Scherzo, H192) (1933-4) [5:36]
Egdon Heath, op.47, H172 (1927) [16:26]
Hammersmith, op.52, H178 (1930) [14:59]
Capriccio (1932) [5:51]
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. February, 1994 at All Saints’ Church Tooting, United Kingdom
CHANDOS CHAN10911X [57:49]

It seems almost incredible that it’s eight years since the death at the age of just 60 of that youthful, energetic figure Richard Hickox. Chandos have done lovers of English music a splendid favour by re-issuing four fine recordings from the early 1990s, featuring music by Delius, Elgar, Ireland and, in the present case, Gustav Holst. Hickox was sometimes characterised as a choral conductor who conducted orchestras as a side-line, the implication being that he wasn’t as good with instrumentalists as with singers. But, as his many wonderful discs of, for example, the Vaughan Williams symphonies demonstrate, he was in fact a superb orchestral conductor. Players responded to his infectious enthusiasm and sheer depth of empathy for the music, and the results were often remarkable.

This collection of relatively small-scale Holst pieces is especially welcome, as he is a composer who has for a long time been under-represented on disc, other than of course The Planets and one or two other ‘bankers’, notably The Perfect Fool and The Hymn of Jesus. This CD contains two masterpieces, at least one of which is nowhere near as well-known as it should be. All the works are given idiomatically excellent performances by conductor and orchestra, with the LSO in fine form, plus outstandingly good recorded sound from the Chandos team.

A Fugal Overture from 1922 makes a compelling starter – why is this thrilling little piece not used more often as a concert opener I wonder? It’s a burst of dynamic and rhythmic energy, which feels like a 1920s equivalent of ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’. The Somerset Rhapsody reminds us how very close Holst and Vaughan Williams were; two of the themes Holst employs in this work appear in his friend’s English Folk-Song Suite, though this Rhapsody is quite an extended affair, with wonderfully subtle orchestration in its central section. The second item, Scherzo, was written shortly before Holst’s tragic and untimely death in 1934. He had suffered from poor health throughout his life, and he died of heart failure after an operation to treat a duodenal ulcer. The Scherzo was apparently intended to be part of a symphony, and this restless, explosive music makes even more frustrating the contemplation of what such a work might have been like.

Then comes the first of the two masterpieces alluded to above – Egdon Heath, based on a passage at the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. It is an evocation of a partly imaginary swathe of heathland to the East of Dorchester, in Hardy’s words “….colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony”. Holst put so much of himself into this haunting piece, monumental despite its mere sixteen minutes of duration; Hickox and the LSO have captured its essential character to perfection. That also goes for Hammersmith, the other masterpiece in this programme. This started life as a piece for military band, written in 1930, and remains one of the finest works yet composed for that genre; Holst himself orchestrated it the following year. It falls into two sections; a slow Prelude which has been taken to describe the Thames ambling its way often unnoticed through the city. That is followed by a lively Scherzo, depicting the hustle and bustle of London life, though the piece does end with a return to the quieter music. You could see this as a shorter companion piece to Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, more compact, yet just as successful in evoking the multi-faceted nature of city life.

And finally a rarity, the Capriccio of 1932. This is another piece originally conceived for wind band, and was written in America. He apparently referred to it as his ‘jazz-band piece’, though in all honesty there’s nothing jazzy about it at all! It was edited for orchestra by Holst’s daughter Imogen, and is eminently worth hearing, with particularly interesting use of harp, piano and tuned percussion, and a trumpet tune that would have been ideal for a film such as The Great Escape!

What a hugely enjoyable disc, and thank-you Chandos for re-issuing it as a reminder of the work of Richard Hickox - a great servant of English music.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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