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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Orchestra Works - Volume 4
A Winter Idyll, H31 (1897) [9:30]
Symphony in F The Cotswolds, Op.8, H 47 (1899-1900) [23:42]
Invocation, (A Song of the Evening) for Cello and Orchestra Op.19 No.2, H 75 (1911) [7:39]
A Moorside Suite, H 173 for Brass Band (arr. composer for string orchestra (1932)) (1928) [14:05]
Indra, Symphonic Poem for Orchestra Op.13, H 66 (1903) [15:19]
Scherzo, H 192 (1933-34) [5:54]
Guy Johnston (cello)
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, MediaCity UK, Salford

After the first disc in this series which was conducted by the late Richard Hickox (Vol. 1), Sir Andrew Davis took on Holst for Chandos (Vol. 2; Vol. 3). Davis has stuck with the project since then and the present CD is the latest salvo. Now the team begin to move down the composer's list of works to the more unusual items. However only the Moorside Suite is new to disc - at least it is in this orchestral version. There have been two other versions one for strings by Philip Lane and another by Gordon Jacob for full orchestra.

We should not forget some older discs from the Chandos stable. Most have now made it to mid-price or lower. These include three Hickox-Holsts (Double Concerto etc); (Fugal Overture etc) and The Wandering Scholar etc. Further back in time but certainly not to be overlooked is a two disc set that includes the choral/orchestral The Cloud Messenger.

The present SACD hybrid starts with A Winter Idyll which is given a superbly caught powerhouse of a performance. Early it may be but it's a far more exuberant and emphatic work than its title might suggest; quite Tchaikovskian too. The Cotswolds Symphony in F comes from a couple of years after A Winter Idyll. Although it has some audible strands of DNA from village greens which can veer dangerously towards Edward German territory, there is enough musculature here to lend spinal strength and keep things stirring. The second movement is the much-extracted Whitman Elegy (Whitman's words ennobled and enlivened RVW, Stanford and Holst; there were others). The movement seems heartfelt and is more an intelligent celebration of Whitman's poetry and subtlety than a grief-stricken threnody. It has a few Elgarian moments but also some climactic Tchaikovskian pages. The Symphony's Scherzo is entertaining but takes us back to the cliché of smocked country folk rather too much. Balfour Gardiner was a friend of Holst and other British composers and this bouncy music resembles his Shepherd Fennel's Dance. The dutiful finale starts with a Smetana-like fanfare. The score exists, having been edited by Rodney Newton and Douglas Bostock, the latter of whom recorded it originally for ClassicO in Munich circa 1998.

Invocation of 1911 shows the composer finding what, unmistakably, is his own voice. In it there are echoes of Egdon Heath and The Planets and these often fall in the quietest passages. Quite apart from the vibrantly forward solo cello of the attentive Guy Johnston the orchestra are lovingly communicated; listen to the indubitable French horns giving forth with all the confidence of a noble Achilles at 2:00. Invocation is a most satisfying work. A Moorside Suite was written initially for Brass Band in 1928 but was arranged in 1932 by the composer. It works just as heartwarmingly well in this form as works originally designed by Holst for string orchestra: Brook Green and St Paul's. There isn't a single one of the three movements I would regard as anything approaching a make-weight; something I cannot say of the overall amiable Cotswold Symphony which is only truly telling in the Whitman movement.

At about the same duration as Moorside comes an early 1900s souvenir of Holst's Sanskrit period, Indra. Again, it has been recorded before - by JoAnn Falletta for Naxos and by David Atherton for Lyrita. Davis adds almost three minutes to Atherton's timing but takes about the same time as Falletta. I am not sure that the plot from Indian mythology which inspired this work is all that important to appreciation of the music. The whole work is a strong contender in the symphonic poem stakes. It's a blazingly stormy piece which has a stern tightly rhythmic fanfare as a recurrent motif. John France has written that it is one of his favourite Holst scores. I can understand why. It is every bit the equal of Bantock's unaccountably overlooked tone poem Thalaba The Destroyer which I heard last year at a BBCPO concert where they were conducted by Michael Seal.

The Scherzo reminds us of a might-have-been. He had been working on a symphony during the last two years of his life but this is all that was achieved. We are fortunate that it was practically performance-ready, having been orchestrated within months of Holst's death in that fateful year of 1934 which also saw the deaths of Delius and Elgar. It has a recording history and has been presented by Douglas Bostock as well as initially (1968) on Lyrita by Sir Adrian Boult. Davis articulates the right amount of raucous and ruthlessly pouncing vigour. Delightful minutiae come across tellingly, including a desolately wailing horn at 0:48 - a really pleasing momentary detail I have never previously registered.

There is no work-for-work competition but two labels come close, including Naxos which also has Indra, Cotswold Symphony and Winter Idyll. There's also a much closer match among older (1982) recordings on Lyrita, a disc which also has Winter Idyll, Indra, Invocation and a movement from Cotswolds Symphony.

The notes are in hands of the composer Colin Matthews of the Holst Trust so it is no surprise that they are extensive and as generous with their facts and background as the disc is fully packed.

Let's hope that the next volume or volumes from Chandos will get to two grievous major omissions from the Holst annals: The Perfect Fool opera - very attractive and revived by the BBC in 1951 (Stanford Robinson), 1967 (Charles Groves) and 1995 (Vernon Handley). It's a perfect CD project and would fit on a single CD. More problematic is the early Sanskrit/Indian opera Sita - longer and previously only heard in two extracts.

Davis is in truly excellent form for this collection while the orchestra and Chandos team most assuredly conspire in this.

Rob Barnett


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