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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Double Concerto for Two Violins and Small Orchestra, Op.49, H 175 (1929) [14:58]
Two Songs without Words for Small Orchestra, Op.22, H 88 (1906) [8:17]
Lyric Movement for Viola and Small Orchestra, H 191 (1933) [11:08]
Brook Green Suite for String Orchestra, H 190 (1933) [7:15]
A Fugal Concerto for Flute, Oboe and String Orchestra, Op.40 No.2, H 152 (1923)
St Paul's Suite for String Orchestra, Op.29 No.2, H 118 (1912-13) [13:04]
Andrew Watkinson (violin); Nicholas Ward (violin); Stephen Tees (viola); Duke Dobing (flute); Christopher Hooker (oboe)
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. July 1993, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
CHANDOS CHAN10948X [64:04]

While he had his blind-spots (Bax, for example) Richard Hickox (1948-2008) was a positive whirlwind for British music. While not overlooking the work of Bryden Thomson and Vernon Handley, Hickox did phenomenal work populating the Chandos catalogue with British music. Holst was centre-focus for Hickox and while I regret that he never got to record the complete operas The Perfect Fool or Sita he did a great deal for this composer.

This latest disc joins earlier instalments in the label's "Hickox Legacy" series. It draws on his work as a newcomer Chandos boy in the 1990s. We have already had his Egdon Heath, Wandering Scholar and Hymn of Jesus discs. There was a valuable final instalment: an intriguingly filled disc in what was intended to be Hickox's "new generation" Holst series. This was sadly choked off by his death in the very year that disc was released.

The present CD overlaps fairly closely (Lyric Movement, Two Songs, Double Concerto, Fugal Concerto, Brook Green) with the classic analogue recordings made by Imogen Holst for Lyrita and collected on a packed full SRCD223. Her St Paul's Suite is an orphan marooned in delightfully mixed company on SRCD336. Those Imogen recordings from the late 1960s are very special and except in matters of modern digital hi-fi remain a success with their balance of cool freshness and needle-sharp vigour. I wouldn't be without them. If forced to choose I would favour the Lyrita not least for its unusual couplings (Golden Goose and Capriccio), longer playing time and steadily controlled passion and exemplary execution. These economically shaped and expressive works are for small orchestra. If you prefer a more ample sound then Hickox delivers.

This disc has examples of Holst's early, middle and late periods. The Two Songs without Words are early. They carry a dedication to Vaughan Williams and would pair nicely with Butterworth's Two Idylls. They look to the same or related folksy material you find in Holst's The Cotswold Symphony, Hampshire Suite and Somerset Rhapsody. From the late period we get the shivering Double Concerto for Two Violins and the icy endearments of the Lyric Movement. The Brook Green Suite is as cheerful and accessible as the St Paul's Suite of two decades earlier. It's evidence that Holst, the true professional, would comfortably temper his style to his intended players (The St Paul's Girl's School Junior Orchestra). From the middle period we get a satisfyingly poised Fugal Concerto which looks forward to Stravinsky's Pulcinella and is in effect a companion to the Fugal Overture for full orchestra.

There's no doubt that the Chandos disc scores highly in many respects. It has a distinct bargain price advantage. It also has a large and burly orchestral sound with plenty of front-to-back and wide-stage perspective and splendour. It radiates a cosy humidity which is only a shade too much for its own good if you have been brought up on Imogen's air-conditioned Lyrita freshness. These and other strengths are complemented by superb and factually specific liner-notes from Lewis Foreman - who else?

Chandos also does extremely well by including the two St Paul's Girls' School 'hit' suites. It's typical of the enthusiastic Hickox that he takes the first movement of the St Paul's Suite at a dangerously exciting full pelt. This communicates as a complete rejection of routine. That 'live' quality extends to include the small legion of named soloists drawn from the CLS. Hickox's St Paul's Suite is how a certain other speed merchant, Nikolai Golovanov, would have sounded had he ever taken up the Holst Suite. That breathlessly streaming speed takes a toll on the big melody in the finale of the Suite; it needs more space to expand and sing out. Intriguingly Hickox brings out superbly the Berber sultriness of the third movement of the Suite in a way that makes you think of Holst's Beni Mora.

Chandos and Hickox bring us vivid small orchestra Holst at bargain price and in big warm sound.

Rob Barnett



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