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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Cloud Messenger, Op 30 (1910-12) (Chamber version, arr. Joseph Fort) [43:24]
Five Partsongs, Op 12 [14:40]
Caitlin Goreing (alto)
The Choir of King’s College, London
The Strand Ensemble/Joseph Fort
rec. 2019, All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34241 [58:06]

Holst completed The Cloud Messenger in 1910, revising it in 1912. Its origins lie several years earlier, however, when Holst began to explore Sanskrit literature. So fully did he fall under the spell of Sanskrit that he taught himself the language to a sufficient degree that he was able to make his own English translation of the text he chose to set in The Cloud Messenger. The words come from a Sanskrit love poem entitled Megadūta, written by the fifth-century poet Kālidāsa. It’s interesting to note – and typical of his thoroughness – that Holst first encountered the poem in an English translation but rather than rely on this, or any other, he went to the trouble of learning the language so that he could make his own version.

Holst scored the work extravagantly. The full version calls for a mezzo-soprano soloist, SATB chorus and semi chorus and a very full orchestra, The instrumental forces comprise three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling cor anglais), two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, celeste, percussion (five players), timpani, two harps, organ and strings. The piece was premiered, very unsatisfactorily, in London in 1913 under the composer’s direction. I learned from Daniel Jaffé’s valuable booklet essay that Holst’s friend, the composer and conductor, W G Whittaker (1876-1944) conducted several performances using his own greatly reduced ensemble of piano, string quintet, timpani and percussion. However, The Cloud Messenger fell into total neglect and I believe that a performance in 2016 in Tonbridge was the first public performance since the 1930s. The one exception to this neglect was a Chandos recording made by Richard Hickox in 1990 (review). I bought that recording in its original single-disc incarnation not long after it came out but I’ll freely admit it’s been a very long time since I listened to it

Now we have the chance to hear for the first time a new chamber version of the piece made by Joseph Fort. His reduced scoring – though larger than Whitaker’s – requires just 15 players: 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, single woodwind, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, celeste, percussion. In a booklet note, Fort explains that he has ensured that the original harmonic and melodic ‘skeleton’ of Holst’s score has been left intact: no notes have been added or removed. He describes his version as a “leaner” version of the original. I made a very conscious decision not to listen to the Hickox recording at all until I’d finished my listening work on the Fort version because I didn’t want my appreciation of the chamber version to be influenced by a series of “if only” thoughts.

Actually, there is no need for “if only” thoughts; I think Joseph Fort’s version works outstandingly well. He’s re-imagined The Cloud Messenger and, in a sense, given us two works for the price of one. It’s true that, once I reverted to the Hickox recording, I was reminded that there are times when the reduced forces – including the smaller choir – aren’t as imposing. As you might expect, that’s the case with the big climaxes in the score, such as the huge moment when the full orchestra and organ pitch in at the climax just before the choir sings ‘When the dancers are weary’. Surprisingly, though, there are quieter moments when large forces singing or playing at a soft volume make an impression that smaller forces can’t emulate. In that connection I think, for example, of the quiet processional at ‘Thou art come to the foot of the Himalaya’, a passage which features only the male voices together with orchestra/ensemble. The passage comes off well in Fort’s scoring but when you hear it sung by a large group of tenors and basses with the support of a full brass section playing softly a different dimension is added.

One reason why I think Fort’s version not only works well but also has fidelity to the original is that, for all the vast forces stipulated by Holst, he actually used them with great discretion. So, the full orchestral panoply is unleashed but rarely, and much of the scoring displays the sort of delicacy that we encounter in, say, ‘Venus’ from The Planets, a score that was to follow The Cloud Messenger quite swiftly. Fort’s scoring makes the piece more intimate and Daniel Jaffé draws an aposite parallel with the chamber opera, Sāvitri.

I think the smaller scale version does a valuable service to the work on two levels. First there’s the pragmatic point that by doing away with the need to hire a substantial orchestra it makes it more affordable; so, one might hope that a few more performances of the work may result. The second important thing is that I believe Fort changes the character of the work. In its original form it is a big concert piece; in this new chamber version one has more of the sense of being drawn into an intimate storytelling, such as one might imagine if the poet Kālidāsa had gathered a small group of people around him, sat them down and begun to tell the tale. It seems to me that both forms of the score are equally valid but perhaps the listener gets more drawn into the poem in this new version, rather than being just an observer of it in the original full-forces version.

Holst’s music is a delight from start to finish and beautifully imagined. The music is fresh and often very beautiful. Most beautiful of all, I think, is the tranquil and extended closing section (from ‘When the dancers are weary’) which eventually becomes a slow processional which is ‘Saturn’-like. Incidentally, unless my ears deceive me, one “loss” in the Fort version is the absence of a semi-chorus. That’s perhaps inevitable when the chorus itself is on the small side (8/5/4/5 in this instance) but in this closing section the contrast between semi- and full chorus in the Hickox performance is telling.

The performance is excellent. Inevitably, with a relatively small instrumental ensemble everything is very exposed but the musicians of The Strand Ensemble pass every test with flying colours. More than that, they bring out all the delicate colours in the scoring and play consistently with precision and sensitivity. The group is an ad hoc body which performs with this choir for certain projects; its members include section principals from several major UK orchestras. The choir sings very well. They produce a fresh, appealing sound which suits the music to a tee. Because it’s a student choir there is some lack of tonal weight among the tenors and basses but this is a well-disciplined choir and they make a fine job of their music. Their diction is commendable. The alto soloist, Caitlin Goreing, is a recent alumna both of King’s College, London and of this choir. She has just one solo to sing (‘Behold her, lying there, yearning for thee’). I like Ms Goreing’s contribution very much. She has an attractive, rich timbre and she delivers the solo expressively.

I’d sum up the chamber version of The Cloud Messenger by saying that Joseph Fort has done an outstandingly successful job in reducing Holst’s original scoring in a way that is stylish and utterly respectful of the original. In so doing he has, as I said earlier, given us two works for the price of one for this new version complements the original in a very successful fashion. If you already know the work through the Hickox recording you should certainly hear this version too: it’s a fascinating comparison.

The Five Partsongs were composed around 1902-03 and though he gave them an opus number they weren’t published as a set in Holst’s lifetime. Indeed, ‘Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee’, a Robert Herrick setting, was edited by Imogen Holst not long before she died in 1984, at which time she discovered that her father had set only the first of the two stanzas. These songs are, by design, much more “conventional” than The Cloud Messenger. ‘Dream Tryst’ is probably the best known; it’s a lovely, slow and decorous setting. ‘Ye little birds’ which follows offers an excellent contrast, being a jolly little piece. The King’s College choir gives an engaging performance of it, though I think the soprano line is over-prominent. ‘Now is the month Maying’ is, of course, well known in the setting by Thomas Morley and I think Holst’s setting is in the spirit of Morley’s version. It’s a pleasing alternative to Morley, though I have to say that any setting of these lyrics will contain rather too many Fa la las for my taste. The concluding song, ‘Come to me’, a setting of Christina Rossetti, is, by some distance, the best of the five. It’s a very lovely composition and the King’s performance is worthy of it.

Delphian’s production values are high. The documentation is excellent. Engineer Matthew Swan and producer Paul Baxter have recorded the performances with admirable clarity and with everything beautifully balanced. The Cloud Messenger plays continuously but I strongly applaud the decision to divide it up into 18 separate tracks; by contrast, the Chandos disc divides the Hickox performance into only 5 tracks.

This is an enterprising and significant addition to the Holst discography.

John Quinn

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