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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)

With seven tracks described as World Premiere Recordings, this is certainly an important addition to the Holst discography. Whether any of these premieres are revealed to be hitherto hidden gems, whether they add anything of significance to our understanding of Holst the composer, and whether having all of Holst’s Christmas carols grouped together in one place explains why just three of them have gained a place in the repertory, is another matter.

In his effusive booklet essay, Chris Cope, who is Chairman of the Holst Society (so, perhaps, not a totally unbiased promoter of Holst’s music) questions why Holst’s carols “rarely, if ever, feature in the programme of the annual festival of lessons and carols from King’s College, Cambridge”. I fear the answer lies in this disc, which includes all 17 Christmas carols, and shows that Holst’s arrangements have none of the glitter and sparkle which seems, whether we like it or not, to be something of a prerequisite in carol services today. These all pre-date the current fad of over-arranging Christmas carols, and in this post-Willcocks and Rutter world, Holst’s very four-square style seems rather dull in comparison. He rarely spiced up the harmonies, he avoided ethereal descants, and never wrapped familiar tunes up in decorative organ accompaniments; at most, he simply added a striding bass line which, in Masters in the Hall seems vaguely irritating. Against the warmth and vitality of more recent arrangements, the unrelenting pulse of Holst’s I Saw Three Ships does little to enhance the original. Personent Hodie, of course, has firmly established a place in the repertory, and set beside the other carols here, one can understand why. That said, while the Godwine Choir produce a fine, clean sound, they are rather too metronomically driven, and as a result there is somewhat characterless quality to their performances.

Christmas Day is a medley of carols strung together rather unsubtly. Cope tells us that it pre-dates Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols by some two years; and certainly the later work throws Holst’s effort into the shadows. But, there again, Holst himself would not care to know that it has been revived here; he described it as “poor stuff anyhow, and not worth doing”, and in those sentiments I am 100% behind him. In such company, the familiar Holst carols – In the Bleak Mid-Winter and Lullay, My Liking - stand out as special, and while the Two Carols (A Welcome Song and Terly Terlow) have a charm largely created by their delicate accompaniments for oboe and cello, only the enchanting A Dream of Christmas really deserves wider recognition than it gets, to my way of thinking.

The World Premiere tracks include four organ pieces all written when Holst was 16. These have all the Victorian turgidity of Mendelssohn on a particularly bad day, a quality which is only emphasised by John Wright’s registrations, thoroughly redolent of a late 19th century English organ - all 16 and 8 foot stops and sub-octave couplers. He has historic authenticity on his side, and he plays them with great verve and enthusiasm, but they do not easily appeal to 21st century ears, and I fear Cope is being overly generous in suggesting that “the teenage Holst was already an accomplished composer”.

Much of Cope’s introductory essay is devoted to Holst’s Second Symphony; which might seem a bit of a surprise since Holst didn’t write one. His first symphony – the Cotswold Symphony – is included in the fourth volume of Chandos’s Complete Holst Orchestral Works series performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Andrew Davis, which also includes the Scherzo which Holst composed in 1933 and which Cope tells us was intended as a movement for a planned second symphony. It was first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult who suggested “it was not easy to listen to”, and certainly it is a work which seems particularly complicated and fussy in the arrangement for organ duet made by Richard Brasier for this new recording. Brasier writes in his own note on the arrangement that it “pushes the bounds of virtuosity on the organ to the very limit”, and certainly his performance, in partnership with Tom Bell, is a superb display of dual virtuosity, magnificently conveyed on this spacious recording from Hereford Cathedral. What Holst would have made of it, I cannot for a moment imagine, but I am not sure all the effort has been entirely worthwhile; the orchestral original seems far more effective as a portrait of Holst in the final stages of his creative life.

Marc Rochester
Previous review: John France

Christmas Day [7:37]
In the Bleak Midwinter [4:22]
Four Old English Carols 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 [4:11]
Two Carols 1. ‘A Welcome Song’ [2:59]; 2. ‘Terly Terlow’ [2:37]
Allegretto Pastorale’ for organ [3:40]
Lullay my Liking [3:28]
Three Carols 1. ‘I saw three ships’ [1:53]; 2. ‘Personent hodie’ [2:33]; 3. ‘Masters in this Hall’ [3:24]
Postlude in C for organ [4:35]
Of One that is so Fair and Bright [1:58]
This Have I Done for my True Love [5:59]
Bring us in Good Ale [1:17]
Funeral March in G Minor for organ [9:28]
A Dream of Christmas [3:09]
Wassail Song [3:09]
Scherzo, H192 (arr. Richard Brasier) [6:21]