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Gustav HOLST (1874–1934)
Alpha & Omega – Christmas Music
Godwine Choir/Alex Davan Wetton and Edward Hughes
John Wright, Richard Brasier, Tom Bell, Douglas Tang (organ)
Charlotte Evans (oboe), Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (cello)
rec. 13-14 July 2019, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead; 22 August 2019, Hereford Cathedral (Scherzo)

This is a hugely valuable addition to Gustav Holst’s discography for three reasons: primarily, for the first time, all the composer’s Christmas carols can be found on a single disc, including two premiere recordings: ‘A Dream of Christmas’ (1917) and ‘I saw three ships’, the first number from Three Carols (1916/17). Secondly, reason these are the ‘complete’ organ works; four early pieces dating from Holst’s schooldays are given their debut recording. I guess that for most enthusiasts, these will be new discoveries. Finally, the intricate organ transcription for four hands of the ‘Scherzo’ from the unfinished Symphony is an interesting addition.

I am considering the premiere recordings in this review as the old favourites have had much ink expended on them. That said, I enjoyed the Godwine Choir’s rendition of ‘Personent Hodie’ (a favourite of mine since my schooldays), ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, and the less-than-pew-friendly ‘Bring us good ale’ -but my favourite carol here is the ‘Wassail Song’ with its ‘intricate counter melodies and changes in texture mak[ing] this a work of some complexity.’

‘A Dream of Christmas’ is new to me. This setting was made in 1917 and published two years later. The anonymous text was mined from Mary Segar’s Medieval Anthology (1915) and set for two soprano parts (often in thirds) with a piano or string orchestra accompaniment, but here played on the organ. A noteworthy feature of this carol is the way the words of Christ are sung in the key of D major, while the rest of the setting is in the Dorian mode.

‘I saw three ships’ is a well-known carol, especially in the versions by John Rutter and David Willcocks. Holst has taken the traditional tune and provided a vibrant setting for unison voices and organ (or orchestral) accompaniment. Its words have an esoteric message which would have appealed to the composer, referring to Joseph of Arimathea’s sea trips to Cornwall and, on one occasion, legendarily bringing Jesus and the Virgin Mary with him.

The four organ pieces were composed in 1890-91 when Holst was attending Cheltenham Grammar School. They are very much of their time and owe much to the prevailing ‘Village Organist’ school of Victorian organ music. The first, a March in C major, has a decent trio tune and an equally vibrant march section. The captivating ‘Allegretto pastorale’ bounces along in typically rustic manner. I disagree with the liner notes that state this is a ‘whimsical piece’; there is a depth in the middle section which is thoughtful and introverted. It is a little stodgy in places, but thoroughly enjoyable. The Postlude in C major would make a good recessional in 2020. Little touches of Jeremiah Clarke here and there give this a sense of musical continuity. The Funeral March is massive in scale, lasting nearly ten-minutes, and a work full of interest. The liner notes point out the eccentric registration which has been retained here, which seems reasonable to me, as it adds colour and variety to what could become a touch longwinded.  These four pieces may not be masterworks, but they are of some significance, and provide a valuable insight into the composer’s early years. Bearing in mind that Holst was only 16 years of age when he wrote them, they hold up well and deserve an occasional outing, so it is great that they are available here for the first time. Well done, EM Records!

Gustav Holst’s Scherzo has been available in its orchestral version since 1972 when, conducted by Adrian Boult, it was issued on Lyrita SRCS 56. Further recordings have been made by Richard Hickox in 1996 and Sir Andrew Davis in 2018. This work pushed Holst’s musical language in a new direction. The Musical Times summed it up well: ‘it sounds too inclusive...characteristically angular, rather chilly in temperature and European rather than national in if Hindemith had taken a hand in a scherzo by Vaughan Williams.’ At the time of the premiere in February 1935, there was some debate as to whether the ‘Scherzo’ was stand-alone or part of a projected Symphony. Vaughan Williams settled the argument in a letter to The Times: he recalled that Holst had told him that he intended to write a symphony and had composed the Scherzo first. The quixotic organ transcription by Richard Brasier sounds very complex to play, clearly pushing the possibilities of four-handed organ music to its limits. It is a worthy experiment,

The Godwine Choir with their conductor and accompanying instrumental and vocal soloists give a studied and enthusiastic performance of all this music. The liner notes are exceptional. There is a long introduction by Chris Cope, chairman of The Holst Society, which puts the entire CD in context. This is followed by a useful biography of the composer by Em Marshall-Luck. Details of all the Christmas music and Organ works are essential reading: all the texts are included with helpful programme notes. Organist Richard Brasier provides a short background note to his transcription of the ‘Scherzo’. Biographies of all the main performers complete this comprehensive booklet.

This is an ideal Christmas present for enthusiasts of Gustav Holst in particular, and of English music in general. As noted above, it features all seventeen of the composer’s Christmas Carols. The organ music is an attractive bonus.

John France

Christmas Day (1910) [7:37]
In the Bleak Midwinter (1904) [4:22]
Four Old English Carols (1907) 1. 'A Babe is born’ [2:09]; 2. ‘Now let us sing’ [2:36]; 3. Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born [2:38]; 4. ‘The Saviour of the World is born’ [2:27]
March in C Major for organ (1890/91) [4:11]
Two Carols (1907–1916) 1. ‘A Welcome Song’ [2:59]; 2. ‘Terly Terlow’ [2:37]
Allegretto Pastorale’ for organ (1890/91) [3:40]
Lullay my Liking (1916) [3:28]
Three Carols (1916–1917) 1. ‘I saw three ships’ [1:53]; 2. ‘Personent hodie’ [2:33]; 3. ‘Masters in this Hall’ [3:24]
Postlude in C for organ (1890/91) [4:35]
Of One that is so Fair and Bright (1916) [1:58]
This Have I Done for my True Love (1916) [5:59]
Bring us in Good Ale (1916) [1:17]
Funeral March in G Minor for organ (1890/91) [9:28]
A Dream of Christmas (1917) [3:09]
Wassail Song (pub. 1931) [3:09]
Scherzo for organ (1933, arr. Richard Brasier) [6:21]

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