With the death of Richard Hickox this disc will be the only volume
in the intended Chandos Holst series unless another conductor
takes over. This utterly splendid disc makes Richard’s passing
all the more lamentable. It is in fact the finest Holst disc in
years. Otherwise one needs to look back to the Lyrita recordings
on SRCD 222
(Imogen Holst) and 209
(David Atherton) for anything anywhere near as good. Also don’t
forget the essential Decca
collection. Sadly there is no sign as yet of recordings of
his complete operas: Sita and The Perfect Fool.
The Ballet music
from The Perfect Fool comprises elemental dances from
the opera which itself runs to about 75-80 minutes – ideal
for a CD project. Chandos provide a deeply pleasing and vivacious
recording – one of their very best. It delivers a palette
of detailing stimulatingly placed across the aural span. The
brass are imperiously emphatic and the more feline touches
- such as the soft and cool flute playing - are rendered with
touching expression. If you already enjoy Dukas’s L’Apprenti
Sorcier or Chabrier’s España or Holst’s The
Planets then this is something you must get to know. The
classic Decca Boult recording of the ballet music is brilliant
but was made in the 1960s. Hickox’s is every bit its equal
but basks in contemporary sound. Never mind that the full
fairytale opera with its complement of wizards, narcoleptic
fools, princesses and elemental spirits pokes fun at Verdi
and Wagner clichés; these bejewelled dances are immensely
enjoyable in their own right. By the way, the opera itself
is lots of fun as those who heard the Groves (1972) and Handley
(Christmas Day, 1995) broadcasts will attest. In terms of
character you might bracket it with RVW’s Poisoned Kiss:
entertaining, brilliant and touching.
In practice The
Perfect Fool dances are the most familiar pieces here. The
other scores are largely unknown. The two choral ballets are new
to CD (see footnote). If you recall a recording of The Golden
Goose it’s Imogen Holst’s version minus chorus on SRCD 223.
Also sans chorus is The Morning of the Year dances
on SRCD 209 – the same disc includes the ballet music from The
Lure. The Golden Goose score is in seven tracks. It’s
a score in which Holst’s folk-song manner is present as it is
in his Somerset Rhapsody – see Boult-Holst Lyrita disc.
This is not the end of the story because other streams flow in
including a Tippett-like delicacy (near the start), a proud bluff
manner: part RVW and part de Falla’s Tricorne and a wassailing
beguilement. The singing is precise yet springy and wonderfully
attentive to dynamics and word-shaping. There’s also a ready sense
of humour evident – how about the refrain: “I shan’t get home
in time to make my old man’s dinner tonight!” It’s not all broad
humour though – listen to the Neptune-ethereal singing
at 3:44 on tr. 6. At tr. 9 the voice of the solo violin rises
in a pristine dancing delicacy – which reminded me a little of
Holst’s ascetic Four Songs for voice and violin (1916).
The Lure is memorable for the satisfying shark-skin abrasion
of the strangely Hispanic brass playing, its music-box grace (4:40)
and a gorgeously Rimskian swell (5:40). The xylophone punctuation
in the more exuberant brass recalled similar effects in Hanson’s
first two symphonies and Lament for Beowulf. Finally The
Morning of the Year brings us back to the choir and orchestra.
This is a somewhat lower key score but has its charms. Its folkdance
feeling is consistent with the dedication - which is to the English
Folk Dance Society. In this sense it recalls one of RVW’s few
unrecorded scores: the large-scale Folk Songs of the Four Seasons
written for a Women’s Institute extravaganza in the 1950s
and rarely heard since. Holst is a degree more nuanced and mystical.
In the penultimate segment the slowly accelerating swing of voices
and orchestra into dance suggests that William Mathias knew the
score before writing his This Worldes’s Joie. This mood
can be contrasted with the asceticism of tr. 14 with its echoes
of Betelgeuse from Holst’s Humbert Wolfe Songs and the
pantheistic mysteries of The Hymn of Jesus recalled in
the first segment of the ballet.
I listened to
this in conventional CD mode but those who have SACD are in
for an even more intense experience.
died in the middle of a sequence of sessions to record Holst’s
A Choral Symphony – a sequence of Keats-settings.
The listening experience
of this disc is completed in princely style with full texts reproduced
in the booklet. There’s also an attentive and authoritative note
by Colin Matthews who has worked on many Holst scores including
several used here.
I am grateful to Colin Mackie for pointing out my mistake in claiming
that this is the first time that 'The Golden Goose' and 'The Morning
of the Year' have appeared on disc. Hyperion released a CD with
these two Choral Ballets coupled with 'King Estmere'(An Old English
Ballad for Chorus and Orchestra) recorded in 1995 with the Guildford
Choral Society and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Hilary
Davan Wetton(CDA66784)(nla). RB