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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Orchestral Works - Volume 4
A Winter Idyll H.31 (1897) [9:30]
Symphony 'The Cotswolds' Op.8 H.47 (1899-1900) [23:42]
Invocation Op.19 No.2 H.75 'A Song of the Evening' (1911) [7:44]
A Moorside Suite H.173 (1928 trans. for strings 1932) [14:05]
Indra - Symphonic Poem Op.13 H.66 ((1903) [15:19]
Scherzo H.192 (1933-34) [5:52]
Guy Johnston (cello)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis,
rec. 2018, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
Multi-channel 5.0 surround sound

‘Tough love’ is probably the best way of characterising Imogen Holst’s critique of her father’s early scores. Her survey, The Music of Gustav Holst, first published in 1951, is famously damming of much of his output. Chapter 1 is invitingly titled “Backgound to the ‘Early Horrors’” and covers a couple of the works recorded here. So, A Winter Idyll is “naive melodies sitting about a little uncomfortably in their heroic armour.... ponderous fragments of an extended chromatic scale... unable to stand on their own legs”. A Cotswold Symphony is the “imitation Tudor heartiness of Edward German” although she does concede that the 2nd movement Elegy contains the finest music while noting the finale has “...chromatic modulations and striving sequences [from which] there was to be no escape from their clutches for many years”. Indra is notable for “the large orchestra rushing up and down hill in turbulent chromatic sixths ... without any essential fervour in the music to justify all the noise”. Even the later Invocation is summarily dismissed as “...not of any value in itself”. The composer, Holst expert and editor of several of these scores, Colin Matthews contributes the brief but valuable liner for this disc and he puts his finger on Imogen Holst’s view. She believed that it was only in his final years and last scores that he achieved the simplicity and directness of musical utterance that he had always been seeking and which set him apart from other major figures in the English Musical Renaissance. Hence the early over-blown Wagnerisms of these youthful works are the antithesis of the ultimate ideal. The reality is all of these scores are a lot better than Imogen Holst would have you believe even when they do not exhibit the unique voice of the composer’s very finest work.

This is Chandos’ fourth volume of the Orchestral works and it has been a five year wait since volume 3. None of the music is new to the catalogue, although I think I am right in saying this is the first time these scores have been available recorded in SA-CD multi-channel sound. Engineering aside, it is very much a case of pick-and-mix for the collector. Slightly unusually, I would have to say that while these new versions do not displace earlier versions, these new recordings are all very good individually and as a collection, so for the Holst admirer the decision will be based on whether they want duplications or are looking to fill gaps. With the exception of the rather lack-lustre and sloppy Cotswolds Symphony and Scherzo from Douglas Bostock on Classico all of the music has been well-served on disc by various conductors, orchestras and labels. Lyrita, in 1993, released the first recordings of Indra and A Winter Idyll together with the Elegy from the Symphony with David Atherton conducting the LPO (review). That disc also featured the superb Alexander Baillie in the Invocation although credit for the premiere recording of that goes to Julian Lloyd-Webber with Vernon Handley a decade earlier. The Symphony, Winter Idyll and Indra also appear on a very good Naxos disc from JoAnn Falletta in Ulster. Naxos contribute another good Invocation from Tim Hugh with David Lloyd Jones and the RSNO and Lloyd-Jones leads a rare recording of the string version of the Moorside Suite as part of a ‘String Miniatures’ collection. Older Lyrita discs feature Imogen Holst conducting just the Nocturne from that Suite in her own (different) edition and Sir Adrian Boult leading a terse and muscular Scherzo - Hickox recorded this with the LSO for Chandos as well.

All of the above options are in fact very good, with minor details favouring one version over another at different points. I do like Atherton’s thrillingly dynamic approach to the early scores - making a virtue out of the “noise” and bombast. The timings are strikingly different from the new versions too; Indra is 12:33 for Atherton and 15:19 for Davis while A Winter Idyll is 7:04 to 9:30. Conversely, Atherton’s Invocation is 9:28 and that of Davis 7:44. Without access to scores I did wonder if Atherton cut the score(s) to achieve such a different timing. In essence Davis lingers lovingly over the slower passages in the works – for example Indra [track 10 5:10 - 7:50 and 10:10 - 13.20] where Atherton is just 2 minutes and 2 minutes for each of the same sections. Both approaches certainly work (in the Symphonic Poem, Faletta is actually slower still than Davis) and both are helped by the excellence of their respective orchestras and engineers. Forced to choose I would go for the impetuous energy of Atherton - this is the God of Storm and Battle after all.

Regarding the Invocation, which is an absolute gem I would again just favour Atherton/Baillie over Davis/Johnston. Johnston is an excellent cellist as evidenced by his quite beautiful and first-choice performance of the Moeran concerto on Naxos, also with Faletta and the Ulster Orchestra. His flowing tempo makes the work more lyrical and song-like but I really do like the extra emotional weight Baillie’s slower more contemplative tempo brings. The older Lyrita disc benefits from including Invocation's companion work the Song of the Night Op.19 No.1 for violin and orchestra.

Things are also close-run when comparing the two best versions of the Symphony. Faletta’s Ulster players benefit from the glamour of the Ulster Hall acoustic which gives the brass in particular a bloom, swagger and brilliance that benefits the music. Conversely, the BBC PO play with superb precision especially in the quick-silver scherzo. This is overall the weakest piece on the disc and as such benefits from its own concision (running to only twenty three minutes across the combined four movements) and Davis’ instinct to keep the textures as light as is possible and the tempi flowing. But having said it is the weakest piece the central Elegy (In Memoriam William Morris) is probably the finest ‘early’ music Holst wrote and it is persuasively played here.

Retuning to A Winter Idyll it is apparent that Atherton cut the score in at least two places. No mention of this is made in Lewis Foreman’s Lyrita liner but lining the scores up against each other using an editing programme on my computer it is clear that Davis includes two extended reflective passages [track 1 1:40 - 3:40 and 6:35 - 7:20] missing from the earlier recording. These 'cuts' leave me in something of a quandary – I would rather hear all the music even if, as here, it is padding. I completely understand why the cuts were made but I do find it slightly frustrating that this was not indicated by Lyrita. Here perhaps Faletta has the best solution. Her Winter Idyll is uncut but flows that bit swifter throughout than Davis. As a piece this is very much in the style of Grieg’s In Autumn concert overture with a rather generic ‘dark and stormy night’ approach to the music making. But again, in Holst’s defence it has to be said that not many British composers were writing music at this time at his age that was better.

The Moorside Suite in its string orchestra incarnation is a rarity in the catalogue which given its quality is something of a surprise. It sounds very much like the forgotten sibling of the St. Paul’s Suite or the Brook Green Suite. According to Matthews’ liner, that is because that is exactly what it was. Holst made this transcription for strings as a follow-up to those two original scores for the school orchestra at St. Paul’s. However, it was technically too demanding, so fell into obscurity until Matthews himself edited the score for publication in 1994. I am surprised it has not become more popular with string orchestras as it sounds very well for the medium with only the second subject of the closing March betraying its brass band origins. The strings of the BBC PO play the score with characteristic skill, but again it has to be said so do the Northern Sinfonia for David Lloyd-Jones. Davis gets the nod simply as being part of an all-Holst programme but in isolation either version will bring great pleasure. It is worth hearing Imogen Holst’s version of the central Nocturne from her 1967 Lyrita recording although as mentioned her edition of this movement is not as faithful to her father’s original as Matthews' 1994 version.

The closing Scherzo from a ‘what-might-have-been’ Symphony brings the disc to a suitably exhilarating conclusion with choice between Hickox, Boult or Davis nip and tuck with Bostock some way behind simply because his Munich players cannot match the precision of the other orchestras.

I listened to the SA-CD stereo layer of this disc and it is predictably good from this source - although the Lyrita 'standard' stereo DDD recording from 1992 made at an un-named venue is up to the finest standards of that label too. As the above will have made clear, this is a valuable addition to the slowly expanding series of Chandos recordings of Holst's orchestral works. For those willing to pick and choose there are equally fine alternatives but for this combination of scores in fine sound on a generously filled disc this will bring considerable pleasure for collectors curious to explore beyond and before the Planets.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Brian Wilson


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