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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Quintet in a minor for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 3, H.11 (1896) [17.40]
3 Pieces (Fantasiestücke) for oboe, 2 violins, viola and cello, Op. 2 (1896, rev. 1910) [11.29]
Terzetto for flute, oboe and clarinet (originally for flute, oboe and viola 1925) [10.01]
Wind Quintet in A-flat major for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 14, H.67 (1903) [14.46]
Sextet in E minor for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola and cello (c. 1900) [25.37]
Ensemble Arabesques
rec. September 2016, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle Hamburg, Germany
FARAO CLASSICS B108098 [79.55]

For those wishing to explore Holst's universe beyond the Planets, this is a very enjoyable, well played and presented disc. The best piece by some distance - the most individual, and the one that best handles the medium – is also the only piece of relative familiarity - the 1925 Terzetto. But for admirers of this composer it is a real pleasure to hear his developing voice through a group woodwind-centred chamber works.

Imogen Holst in her survey of her father's music deigns not to mention any of the works at all - except to cite the Terzetto as having "baffled several distinguished musicians...". If she had mentioned them I suspect they would have been consigned to the category of 'Early Horrors'. Even Michael Short in his extended Gustav Holst the man and his music [OUP 1990] mentions them only in passing as student works. True, none are lost masterpieces and it is very hard to discern the individual voice that Holst was to find from roughly 1908, when Savitri appears as his first unique and remarkable work. In recent years there has been a trend to unearth early works by composers such as Vaughan Williams and Bax amongst several others. Putting to one side the question of individuality, one thing strikes me comparing the Holst works on this disc with those composers. Vaughan Williams and Bax wrote chamber works of [youthful?] confidence and substantial scale. These Holst pieces are in contrast rather modest in outlook and the demands they make of the players. There is a degree of circumspection in the writing here which means that they sound rather 'contained' – more concerned with doing the right thing musically than bursting any academic bonds.

But, accepting that as a potential 'limitation', these are all thoroughly enjoyable works. Holst was usually a practical musician and that is how it sounds here. The op.3 Quintet for wind and piano is a good case in point. In four movements running to under twenty minutes, this is a perfectly pleasant piece of modest aims and achievements. The 2nd movement Scherzo bubbles along like some Brahmsian Serenade. Throughout the players of Ensemble Arabesques, along with pianist Soojin Anjou, pitch their performances to perfection. They do not seek profundity where none exists and their playing is a model of neat playing and excellent ensemble. The following Adagio aims for a Bachian Preludial weight and to some degree achieves it, but quite how it knits into the rest of the work I am not sure. There is a niggling feeling that these are four independent 'studies' in mood and texture which Holst happens to have stitched together as a nominal quintet.

Next are the Three Pieces for Oboe & String Quartet. The liner omits to mention that the 1910 date is the re-working of this music from an 1896 Fantasiestüke. This explains why they sound rather slight and unformed – which would be surprising if they truly post-dated Savitri. Short refers to the piece as "a rather unsatisfactory mixture, in which 19th Century textbook harmonies rub shoulders with expressive folk-like melodies". That is exactly how it sounds – charming in a light and rather disposable way, certainly well played here, but with a wispy inconsequence that makes it fade from the memory rather quickly. Even the far more satisfactory Terzetto from 1925 finds Holst struggling with his musical material. The reason for the "bafflement" mentioned before is that Holst got it into his head to write each part – flute, oboe and viola – in a different key. As a test in score reading it is completely confusing, but to the ear it is positively mellifluous. So quite why Holst went to all that intellectual trouble to produce something that lies on the ear so comfortably is a mystery. The real interest – and compositional skill – here lies in how brilliantly Holst husbands such limited resources – from the opening of the gently entwining Allegretto he makes a virtue of simplicity. Top drawer playing here – sympathetic and alert to the ebb and flow this music requires. By some distance the musical highlight of the disc. A rather big “however” here though: this group plays this as a wind trio of flute oboe and clarinet and no matter how beautifully it is played I can find no composer-derived authority for such a change. So this is beautiful but potentially spurious – and significantly changes the aural balance that the rich-toned viola brings. A strange choice since they have a violist in the ensemble. Perhaps there are sanctioned alternatives I am not aware of – certainly the J&W Chester score makes no such indication. Even liner note writer Carsten Dürer is not in on the choice as he refers to the viola in the title listing. This work should be heard in the original instrumental grouping – the single string voice brings great variety to the texture and timbre.

The Op.14 Wind Quintet again shows Holst working through influences – here that of baroque, music allowing Holst to practice his contrapuntal writing as well as his fascination for Canon and Variation form. The latter is the basis for the finale, which has a gently folksy theme that Holst then treats in an attractive but again rather light manner. The final work is a sextet for three wind and three strings. Although pre-dating the previous Quintet in scale, it strives for something more substantial – in,its four movements it is the longest work on the disc. Dürer is right to hear a serenade-like quality again – lacking,the confidence of youth, once again Holst does not seem to want to break any bonds or boundaries, so this is a well-crafted piece of Brahmsian hausmusik. Again the pleasure comes in the unforced lyricism of the music – gently sunny throughout, a quality the excellent Ensemble Arabesques reproduce effortlessly. This sounds like music that is a pleasure to play, the sonorities rich and warm, the interaction of the instruments in the main well-judged. Again the closing movement – the longest in the work – is a theme with variations. It makes the greatest technical demands on the players, with the lead violinist Barbara Gruszcynska neatly poised and articulate.

This is a generously filled disc of music that Holst enthusiasts will be delighted to hear – certainly the performances are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Only the Terzetto really demands to be heard by those interested in what else of Holst to listen to after the Planets, and in that case the 'original' instrumentation must always take precedence even over a performance as musical as the one given here. Good recording which balances the varying instrumental groups very well in a sympathetic but not overly resonant acoustic – pretty much an ideal balance in fact.

Minor music very well played.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Stephen Greenbank



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