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Imogen HOLST (1907 - 1984)
Mass in A minor (1927) [20:36]
A Hymne to Christ (1940) [2:24]
Three Psalms (1943)a [16:07]
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow (1950)b [9:19]
Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go? (1972) [6:25]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
Rejoice in the Lamb Op.30 (1943, orch. I. Holst 1952)a [15:46]
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Tanya Houghton (harp)b; The Dmitri Ensemblea; Graham Ross
rec. All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak, London, July 2011
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907576 [72:35]
For many long years Imogen Holst was known as a staunch champion of her father's music through her writings and conducting. She was also known as an active Britten amanuensis. Her own achievement as a composer was long overlooked. Her music secured a first exposure through a recording of her string quartet (once available on Conifer 4321-15006-2, issued 1990) and more recently through a generously filled disc of her string chamber music (Court Lane Music CLM 37601). The latter proved quite revealing to a number of music-lovers who then realised that she was a composer to be reckoned with and one with a distinctive and personal voice. 

This new release is entirely devoted to a generous selection of her choral music mainly focusing on some of her most substantial works in this particular genre. 

The earliest work here is the fairly impressive Mass in A minor completed under the guidance of Vaughan Williams when the composer was still a pupil of his at the Royal College of Music. The music is still somewhat indebted to that of RVW. The music already displays a number of remarkable qualities such as a sure hand in writing for voices and a considerable imagination that is totally her own. RVW's masterly Mass in G may have served as a model but Imogen Holst's work does not set out to imitate it slavishly. Quite the contrary; it is simply astonishing that such superbly crafted music has lain unheard for so long. 

The short A Hymne to Christ on two verses of John Donne's In what torn ship soever I embark clearly displays further mastery in voice handling. This deceptively simple short work is really very fine and, again, deserves to be much better known. 

The Three Psalms for mixed chorus and strings were composed in 1943. This rather tough piece carries Holst's harmonic thinking another step further. If the music of A Hymne to Christ might still be redolent of Finzi, that of the Three Psalms rather remind one of her father in the last stages of his career. On the whole these settings are rather austere and harmonically tense, the string orchestra being used quite sparingly but always to telling effect. This impressive work is certainly the most forward-looking of all those recorded here and is in full contrast to the lovely Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow for female voices and harp on texts by John Keats. This beautiful set was composed at Britten's suggestion and was first performed in Aldeburgh. The setting for upper voices and harp will have many to think of Britten's own A Ceremony of Carols but the choice of texts is, needless to say, completely different and varied enough so as to allow for a colourful work, by turns joyful and pensive, easy-going and tender. As far as I am concerned this quite beautiful piece is the loveliest work here and a real little gem to which I will return regularly. 

Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go?
, composed in 1972 is a work from the composer's full maturity. Her assured word setting bears ample proof of the mastery gained over the years. The text by the seventeenth-century Scottish poet William Cleland again allows for widely varied choral handling although the whole is “held together” by the recurring motive Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go? which helps maintain formal coherence. 

These choral works confirm the impression that one may have had from listening to the aforementioned disc of chamber music for strings: she was a fully equipped musician and a composer with a definitely personal musical vision. She had things to say and she knew how to say them. 

Britten's festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb Op.30 for chorus and organ was composed in 1943 on a commission of the Reverend Walter Hussey of St Matthew's Church, Northampton. He also commissioned a number of other composers and artists. Britten chose some fragments from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart; not an obvious choice then although one may now relish the text without any prejudice, religious or other. However, for whatever reason, I for one have never been really taken by this work in its original version with organ. I always instinctively felt that something was missing to make it entirely satisfying. I know now what was missing: the orchestra. Britten must have felt the same and he asked Imogen Holst to make an orchestral version of it for the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. This she did in a really splendid fashion. She scored the piece for a chamber orchestra consisting of strings, woodwind, horn, timpani and a small percussion group. The results are quite astonishing and I cannot but help ask myself why Britten never thought of scoring it himself. Whatever the answer, Holst did a wonderful job that must have pleased Britten. I sincerely hope that Imogen Holst's orchestral version of Rejoice in the Lamb will be heard more often. 

Everyone here sings and plays with utmost conviction and impeccable technique. Tanya Houghton's playing in the Keats song cycle is superb whereas the four soloists in Rejoice in the Lamb, all from the chorus, deserve a mention: Cressida Sharp (soprano), Robert Cross (counter-tenor), Stefan Kennedy (tenor) and Dominic Sedgwick (bass). The recording and production are excellent.
 
In short this generously filled release is yet another well deserved tribute to a distinguished musician whose personal achievement has long been overlooked and is now being given its due. 

Hubert Culot

See also review by John Quinn

Britten's Rejoice in the lamb: Review index and discography


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