Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Choral Symphony, Op.41 (1924) [50.45]*
The Mystic Trumpeter, Op.18 (1904, revised 1912) [18.23]
Susan Gritton (soprano)
BBC Symphony Chorus* and Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 6-7 April 2013
When Holst’s “First Choral Symphony” was premièred in Leeds in October 1925, it was an initial success and Holst himself was moved to claim “I think the work as a whole is the best things I have written.” When however the work was given in London three weeks later - in an apparently inferior Royal Philharmonic Society performance staged to commemorate the centenary of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - the critics were almost universally hostile. “Holst represents the melancholy spectacle of a continuous and unrelieved decline”, was only one of the brickbats hurled at a score “where cerebration tamed and bridled inspiration”. Only Ernest Newman hailed the work with any sort of enthusiasm, devoting two long articles in the Sunday Times to a detailed analysis of Holst’s treatment of the Keats text following on the Leeds première. These articles, complete with musical quotations - can you imagine the Sunday Times doing that nowadays? - may have helped to redress the critical balance. However, they also served to reinforce the impression of a work of academic merit rather than inspiration. After the composer’s death his daughter Imogen Holst weighed in with ten pages of diatribe in her book Gustav Holst and his music against sections of the score. She devotes nearly a whole page to an analysis of the end of the scherzo which takes longer to read than the music does to play. She ended by describing the work as “dragged down by its weaknesses”. That, it would seem, more or less did for the First Choral Symphony. Holst had intended to write a Second, using texts by George Meredith, but these never reached beyond the stage of sketches. It would seem that we should simply discard the word First from the title for the future although that terminology is used on this issue.
Apart from occasional performances by various choral societies, the work languished until Sir Adrian Boult recorded it for EMI in 1974. That reading, still available in the catalogues, gave the work a serviceable representation on disc, but did not altogether serve to dispel the sense of what Holst’s friend Vaughan Williams called “cold admiration”. In the first place, the amateur London Philharmonic Choir sounded decidedly uncertain in some passages of the admittedly very difficult choral writing. Felicity Palmer, at that time on the verge of her transformation from soprano to the mezzo we so much admire today, had to take Holst’s lower option on her climactic high B towards the end of the first movement. This left the end of the movement sounding somewhat deflated. The performance of the Ode on a Grecian urn, too, had a sort of glacial stillness that lacked warmth even in the beautiful setting of the words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.
Shortly before his death, Richard Hickox had proposed to record the symphony with his BBC Welsh forces for Chandos, and Susan Gritton contributes a touching note to the booklet with this new release describing the abortive sessions for the Song and Bacchanal. The baton of the Chandos series of Holst’s orchestral music has now passed to Sir Andrew Davis and the forces of the London wing of the BBC. The results are by far the best recording of the Choral Symphony available, making a worthy successor to Chandos’s earlier discs of Holst choral music including Hickox’s landmark performances of such works as the Hymn of Jesus, Ode to Death and Cloud Messenger - reviewed by Len Mullenger and last year by Rob Barnett.
Unlike Boult, Davis takes the opening Invocation to Pan at a very slow and deliberate speed. This helps the choir to make their delivery of the monotone chant more pregnant with meaning and much clearer - this was one of the points where the London Philharmonic Choir for Boult managed to mangle Holst’s carefully precise rhythmic writing. It is interesting to note that Holst was obviously concerned about the clarity of sections of the score, indicating in many places that only half of the choir - presumably a large amateur body at the time of the first performances - should sing. Davis has a considerably smaller body of singers to begin with. It doesn’t sound as though he thins them out much if at all in the indicated passages. There is certainly plenty of clarity in their delivery, but one might have wished for a greater degree of contrast when the full choir does enter - as in the aforementioned setting of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (track 14, 1.49) - but this is not a major drawback. While one might have welcomed the larger body of the BBC Welsh Chorus scheduled for Hickox’s original sessions, the BBC Chorus with their plentiful experience in difficult modern scores show all the expertise and precision that one might expect and that Holst’s music so persistently demands. Their delivery of the syllable “Hark!” in the scherzo, perversely marked by Holst to be sung piano leggiero but then marked with an accent, is absolutely perfect (track 15, 1.32).
The only other recording in the catalogue, that by Hilary Davan Wetton with the Guildford Philharmonic Choir, unfortunately has the choir placed too far back in the balance although they too are very good; Rob Barnett in his review for this site of the Hyperion Helios reissue rightly thought them superior to Boult’s choir, although he preferred the EMI acoustic. I have not heard the occasionally available ‘pirated’ recording conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent (at one time issued on Intaglio INCD7401) for some time, but from memory the lapses from accuracy were even worse in the context of the live performance involved.
Susan Gritton makes a beautiful contribution in the Song and Bacchanal, backed by a superlative rendition of the viola solo from Caroline Harrison. Holst’s sudden change of key at the words “What enamoured bride, cheated by shadowy wooer from the clouds”, after thirty-six bars of score without a single accidental in sight, has a sense of real discovery (track 6, 3,23). Gritton is also nicely poised in the final bars of the Ode on a Grecian urn, and launches the finale with delicacy. Lynne Dawson in the Helios issue is even more creamily beautiful, but as I have observed Felicity Palmer for Boult has a sense of frailty which presages her imminent change to the mezzo repertoire. Gritton is also superior to Sheila Armstrong in the fill-up to this disc.
All the earlier issues of the Choral Symphony originally coupled the work with the Choral Fantasia, although the Boult now comes with a collection of two Holst operas and the Groves recording of the Hymn of Jesus. The Choral Fantasia having been included by Chandos in one of their earlier Hickox collections, the makeweight here comes in the form of Holst’s earlier cantata The mystic trumpeter which has only previously been available in the shape of two recordings from Lyrita and Naxos. Holst originally wrote the work as early as 1904, but he thought enough of the score to return to it and subject it to revision several years later (the booklet here cites the date as 1912, but Imogen Holst gives it as 1910). This must have been one of the first times that Walt Whitman had been set to music by an English composer - many others were to follow - and although Imogen Holst refers to the revision as a “patchwork affair” Holst is punctilious in his response to Whitman’s elastic rhythms in his poetry, the very feature that makes his words so amenable to musical setting. Whitman’s poem indeed has inspired a number of later settings - I have heard versions by Baker, Converse (these two purely orchestral tone-poems), Hanson (with narrator - Delos DE3160) and Harty (with chorus) - but so far as I am aware Holst setting for solo voice and orchestra was first in the field.
As I have mentioned, Sheila Armstrong on the earlier Lyrita release sounded rather pallid in her delivery of the impassioned text. Claire Rutter on the Naxos release was more substantial in tone, but this recording comes coupled with a recording of The Planets which may involve collectors of Holst rarities in unwanted duplication (the Lyrita issue couples the work with Vaughan Williams’s The sons of light and Parry’s Ode on the Nativity, both rarities on disc and indeed the latter unavailable elsewhere). I have not seen a score of the work (it remained in manuscript for many years) but the orchestral section of score, which Holst did not revise, contains hints of the future composer to come even if the setting is more romantic than his later treatments of Whitman in the Ode to Death and Dirge for two veterans. Davis underlines the romantic leanings more than did David Atherton in the Lyrita recording, more in line with the interpretation of David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos . And the music benefits by this; we should not feel the need nowadays to apologise for Holst’s ‘pseudo-Wagnerian’ influences, which in any event are not obtrusive. Indeed one might even wish for more violin tone in the surging lush phrase which accompanies the words “I see and know the flames that heat the world” (track 2, 1.32) which recalls Strauss’s Death and transfiguration. In the following verse, conjuring “war’s alarums,” we even get hints of Mars lurking in the wings. Gritton rises with great fire to the stratospheric writing at “O glad, exulting, culminating song!” (track 4, 1.10) and the music rises to a final climax that must surely have been in Vaughan Williams’s mind when he wrote his own Whitman setting Toward the unknown region a few years later.
Colin Matthews contributes a useful booklet note which however unfortunately repeats Imogen Holst’s allegations that the finale of the Choral Symphony “does not quite live up to the expectations that the first three movements have raised.” In fact I find it a very satisfactory conclusion to the symphony, with its rondo theme - first heard at the words “In thy western halls of gold” - slowly transformed into the melody of “Bards of passion and of mirth” and with the return of the opening words “Spirit here that reignest” binding the whole into a very satisfying whole. As a symphonic finale, it seems to me to provide a much greater sense of unity than the more ecstatic and discursive finale to Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony. Unlike the recording by Boult, Chandos provide multiple track entries between sections of the movements in the Choral Symphony, which those looking for a particularly favourite passage may welcome.
A superb release, in excellent sound. Dare one hope that Chandos will continue their series supplementing Hickox’s recordings with a complete recording of The Perfect Fool? In his booklet note Colin Matthews describes this score as a “largely unsuccessful attempt at grand opera” but this hardly begins to describe the riotous nonsense of the plot; and the score is simply glorious, much more than simply the famous Ballet music included (conducted by Hickox) on the first of these volumes of orchestral music (review).Then again, there are still plenty of Holst scores awaiting commercial recording; Hecuba’s Lament urgently demands attention. Also we have not had a complete recording of the Welsh folksong settings since the days of LP (Abbey LPB736). The complete Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda have been unavailable since the long deleted Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD)9046 disc.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Holst review index