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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Suite de Ballet ; A Song of the Night* ;The Wandering Scholar Chamber Opera in One Act cast below *Lesley Hatfield (violin) Northern Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox Chandos CHAN 9734 [53:39]



Alison………………………….Ingrid Attrot (soprano)

Pierre………………………… Neill Archer (tenor)

Louis………………………… Alan Opie (baritone)

Father Philippe……………….. Donald Maxwell (bass)

This brief but delightful programme opens with an early work, Suite de Ballet., Op. 10 (1899) which Holst wrote while he was touring with Carl Rosa. It is light music. The opening 'Danse rustique' is just that, a charming little piece with plenty of rhythmic drive, recalling Edward German and Sullivan. 'Valse' has the grace of classical ballet although one or two phrases might disconcert some choreographers into thinking them rather heavy-foooted. The 'Carnival' movement is high-spirited and evokes the hustle and bustle of the crowds and the enticements of the side-shows and fair-ground rides. There is quite a strong Gallic feeling about it yet the slower middle section uncannily pre-echoes Eric Coates's more romantic moments. But the most charming movement, is the sweetly romantic and atmospheric nocturne that is the 'Scène de nuit.'

Another lovely nocturne - Song of the Night (1905) demonstrates how far Holst's talent had progressed. This work has altogether more depth and range and shows much more confident and imaginative writing for the solo violin. Although Holst left no clue as to the specific meaning or influence of the song, we may deduce that it encompasses his enthusiasm for Indian mythology since, at the time, he was deeply immersed in learning Sanskrit and writing music with definite Indian leanings.

The main work in the programme is the brief (25 minute) one-act chamber opera, The Wandering Scholar (1929-30) that was influenced by the writings of Helen Waddell.  The comedy is slight with no chorus and just four characters. Holst uses spare orchestral forces, there are no big numbers, no set-pieces, and no overture. It is a simple rural tale, told simply with original music that suggests (but is not) folk music.

The story opens with farmer Louis (a lusty yet reliable Alan Opie) wanting to take his oats with his wife Alison (a scheming, flirtatious Ingrid Attrot) but she has other ideas. As soon as she sees Louis off to market, she entertains randy Father Phillipe hinting - "…the heart should have its fling and put forth new love every Spring..." The orchestra amusingly admits the idea but, at the same time, censors it. For his part, Philippe (a really lecherous ill-tempered Donald Maxwell), is keen to get her upstairs (up the ladder anyway) to "…exorcise the naughty devil of springtime in your eye…" He is just about to have his wicked way, when Pierre enters (a knowing Neill Archer as the not-so-innocent wandering scholar). Pierre is down on his luck and begs food. To Father Philippe's disgust, Alison fancies him and wants to feed him. In a jealous rage, Philippe chases the hapless boy away. Once again, the would-be lovers go towards the ladder, fat Philipe worrying if the rungs will hold him when they hear Louis returning - with Pierre! Hurriedly, Alison hides the food and wine and pushes the fat Father beneath a clump of hay. Louis demands that Alison feeds Pierre. She is adamant that there is no food in the house and tells him to take Pierre into town for a meal. Pierre suggests he tell a tale first. Louis is enthusiastic but Alison, understandably, is not. During his fable, Pierre manages to weave into the story the whereabouts of the food and wine, and, finally. Philippe together with an allusion to his wicked intentions. Louis beats the fat man and chases him from the house then invites Pierre to sit and eat while he takes Alison upstairs…

A slight but amusing tale that Holst considerably heightens with his music.

An interesting collection for Holst admirers.


Ian Lace

and another view from Hubert Culot

Both Suite de Ballet Op. 10 ( 1899) and A Song of the Night Op. 19 No . 1 ( 1903) are early works in Holst's output. Though both of them are really well done and already display Holst's orchestral flair and mastery they are highly uncharacteristic and do contain pretty little of Holst's mature music. The Suite de Ballet is light music of quality, expertly written and colourfully scored. The music may recall German and Sullivan, as Lewis Foreman rightly states in his notes, but it also looks in the direction of Chabrier (in Danse Rustique) or Saint-Saens (in Scene de nuit with its atmospheric solo violin). Indeed had Scene de nuit been written by Saint-Saens, it might have become a popular violin encore. This is probably this state of things which prompted Vaughan Williams to write to Holst that he would have become popular overnight had Suite de Ballet been first performed in France!

The Wandering Scholar Op.50 (1930) is one of Holst's last works and it clearly belongs to Holst's full maturity. This short chamber opera (it is scored for small forces) is a curious work that obviously aims at comedy but does not always achieve it in spite of many imaginative touches, such as the cellos' and basses' anticipation of Father Philippe on-coming or the pseudo-Gregorian tune accompanying the arrival of the scholar or Father Philippe's Latin grumblings trying to cover the scholar's telling of his miserable fate when he had to part with some beloved books to survive. Holst's music in this short opera also avoids any tendency towards any sort of sentimentality and manages to do so by being rather dry and even angular at times with little legato or any attempt at song. Apart from Louis' opening song, most of the vocal line is set in arioso style, fastly moving with little repose. The music never lingers and this might to some extent be a cause for regret. Much as I like this piece for its many felicities, I have not yet been able to make-up my mind whether it is successful or not in dramatic terms. I think that the dramatic impact much depends upon the characterisation which the singers may impart in their roles. Though I found it musically secure, I think that the present performance is a bit wanting in characterisation and a bit too detached to be fully successful. The earlier recording on EMI (now available in CD format coupled with At the Boar's Head) was certainly more theatrically conceived and was thus marginally more convincing than the one under review which has still much to commend itself.

The problem with this release is that it is a very mixed affair coupling works situated at both ends of Holst's career that have very little in common, except that they are by the same composer! It may not be easy to find a suitable coupling to The Wandering Scholar. EMI's recent re-release already mentioned may be one solution. Another would have been, I think, to couple it with other works on texts translated by Helen Waddell such as the Six Medieval Lyrics and the Six Canons written in 1932.

Hubert Culot


Ian Lace

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