> HOLST Decca British Music Collection [TB]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda

Purcell Singers/Osian Ellis (harp)/Imogen Holst

Janet Baker (mezzo), Robert Tear (tenor), Thomas Hemsley (baritone)/Purcell Singers/English Chamber Orchestra/Imogen Holst
Seven Partsongs

Purcell Singers/English Chamber Orchestra/Imogen Holst
The Evening Watch

Purcell Singers/Imogen Holst
Fugal Concerto
St Paul's Suite

St Paul Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
Ballet Music: The Perfect Fool
Egdon Heath

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
The Hymn of Jesus

BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Adrian Boult
Moorside Suite

Grimethorpe Colliery Band/Elgar Howarth
Rec 1961 (The Perfect Fool, Egdon Heath); 1962 (The Hymn of Jesus); 1965 (Choral Hymns, Savitri, Partsongs, The Evening Watch); 1973 (Moorside Suite); 1992 (Fugal Concerto, St Paul's Suite)
DECCA 470 191 2 [2CDs: 149.30]

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The popularity of The Planets deludes us as to the real nature of Holst. For the most striking aspect of his achievement is that his approach is extraordinarily wide-ranging. In his early works the influence of Wagner was important, but he outgrew this trend as he developed his interest in subjects such as Sanskrit literature, English poetry and literature, musical neo-classical and baroque styles, and, of course, astrology. He was a gifted trombone player, performing for many years with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, while as a teacher he was inspiring, working from 1919 at the Royal College of Music, and more significantly perhaps, from 1905 at St Paul's Girls School at Hammersmith.

In many respects Holst is the least known of the major English composers. The fame and popularity of his remarkable suite The Planets ought really to encourage and stimulate interest in other masterpieces - for instance the chamber opera Savitri, the oriental fantasy Beni Mora or the tone poem Egdon Heath, to mention three works whose outlooks are strongly contrasted. For a wide-ranging, even challenging, approach to his art was fundamental to both the man and the musician.

This marvellous collection of reissues, gathered as a 2CD set in Decca's 'British Music Collection', will provide the listener with a range of experiences commensurate with understanding the true nature of this elusive composer. The performances are good too, the recordings never less than satisfactory. Even the earliest of them, the two orchestral pieces recorded by Boult and the London Philharmonic in the early '60s, have come up splendidly in their reincarnation. The ballet music from the opera The Perfect Fool is nothing less than a showpiece, its outer movements full of exciting rhythms and colourful intensity, whereas the elusive Egdon Heath is the work Holst reckoned to be his greatest. It is dark and brooding, a 'difficult' work revealing its secrets only reluctantly. But once the listener has entered into its strange and compelling world, which was inspired by the opening scene of Hardy's novel The Return of the Native, it is hard not to concur with the composer's own opinion. Boult's performance is keenly judged, and the recorded sound is suitably atmospheric, wearing its years lightly.

The vocal music is a good deal less well known than it might be. Holst loved working with singers, and he really understood the challenges of writing for mixed voices. Both the Partsongs and The Evening Watch reflect this, with idiomatic performances under the devoted direction of his daughter Imogen. If some of the more recent recordings of this repertoire, notably those by the Holst Singers and Stephen Layton on Hyperion, are more atmospheric still, that is because the more recent recording allows for more subtle balances to be achieved in the part-writing.

The chamber opera Savitri is in many respects the most demanding of these works from the listener's point of view. Its strange, mystical world captures the essence of a story about love and death taken from the Sanskrit, a language the eclectic Holst learned specially for the purpose of composing it. The opera is unlikely to receive a finer performance than this one, chiefly because of the great Janet Baker in the title role, at her radiant best.

The two chamber orchestra pieces, the St Paul's Suite and the Fugal Concerto, are performed by the St Paul Chamber Orchestra (Minnesota) under Christopher Hogwood. These are at once the most recent recordings, and, in terms of sound, probably the best among the collection. The performances are good too, though the phrasing sometimes seems efficient rather than warm.

If Egdon Heath was regarded by Holst as his masterpiece, and The Planets is undoubtedly given that accolade by the public, the claim of The Hymn of Jesus cannot be far behind. Boult's splendid recording was made back in the 1960s, but its remastering has been triumphantly successful, with orchestra and chorus captured in a really compelling and atmospheric balance of ensemble and acoustic. The music is conceived in a single sweep across many contrasting visions, and this performance succeeds in reconciling these demands. For this collection must assume a proud position as one of the best issues of English music in the catalogue.

Terry Barfoot

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