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Gustav HOLST (1874–1934)
Orchestral Works Volume 4

A Winter Idyll, H31 (1897) [9:30]
Symphony in F, Op.8, H47 ‘The Cotswolds’ (1899/1900) (ed. Rodney Newton and Douglas Bostock) [23:42]
Invocation for cello and orchestra (A Song of the Evening), Op.19/2, H75* (1911) [7:44]
A Moorside Suite, H173 (1928, arr. for orchestra by Holst, 1932) [14:05]
Indra, Op.13, H66 (1903) [15:19]
Scherzo, H192 (1933/34) [5:52]
Guy Johnston (cello)*
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester. DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from chandos.net.
CHANDOS CHSA5192 SACD [77:01]

It’s been a while since Volume 3 appeared in 2013 (First Choral Symphony and The Mystic Trumpeter, CHSA5127 – review). Volume 4, the catalogue number of which suggests that it was originally slated for release some time ago, has not brought us Paul Corfield Godfrey’s wished-for complete The Perfect Fool, the ballet music from which was included on the first volume (CHSA5069 – review) – let’s hope that is yet to come.

I was a little curmudgeonly about Volume 1 – DL Roundup January 2009 – and Volume 2 (CHSA5086 – review), feeling that there were better versions of The Planets, the main work on the latter. Dan Morgan, who co-wrote that review, was even more unimpressed: ‘very disappointing indeed’.

In the case of Volume 3, there’s not much competition for the First Choral Symphony, but it’s strong competition, from Sir Adrian Boult, with Felicity Palmer in top form as soloist. The budget EMI twofer which includes it is now download only (Warner 9689292 – stream from Naxos Music Library) but the 6-CD Collector’s Edition offers splendid value, currently £13.99 from Amazon UK1 (Warner 4404712 – review review). There are so many goodies in that set as to make it seven and a half hours of enrapt listening and an essential purchase.

Sheila Armstrong is the very convincing soloist, with the LPO and David Atherton, on a Lyrita recording of music by Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter, with Parry and Vaughan Williams (SRCD.270 – review review review). In Download News 2013/18, I found myself struggling to love either work on Volume 3, but ultimately preferring the rival recordings, albeit that neither is available on SACD or in 24-bit download format. Incidentally, ignore the link to theclassicalshop.net, the former Chandos download site: it’s now available in mp3, 16- and 24-bit stereo and 24-bit surround from their new site chandos.net.

If the competition for Volume 3 is fierce, the same holds for Volume 4. Much of the programme overlaps that of a very fine Lyrita recording conducted by David Atherton, which includes A Winter Idyll, Elegy from the Cotswolds Symphony, Indra and Invocation (SRCD.209 – review review). The complete Cotswolds Symphony, A Winter Idyll and Indra also feature on a Naxos recording which I thought could hold its head up in any company (see below).

I can’t claim that either of these most recent Chandos collections is essential listening, though Indra and Invocation come close to being among my favourite Holst pieces. Indra is the one early work here which comes nearest to the mature Holst style. The underlying story, from the Rig Veda, demonstrates Holst’s growing interest in Sanskrit literature. More to the point, it’s a striking work and it receives a fine performance here, though not necessarily one to outshine the Lyrita (above) or the Naxos conducted by JoAnn Falletta, with Winter Idyll and the Cotswolds Symphony (8.572914 – review review DL Roundup July 2012/1).

My favourite work here is Invocation, an evocative and well-focused piece which, inexplicably, Holst did not publish, with Guy Johnston aiding and abetting the BBC Phil and Sir Andrew Davis to such convincing effect as to contradict Imogen Holst’s dismissive opinion of her father’s early music generally and of this in particular. It’s taken at a fast tempo by comparison with the Lyrita, or with Tim Hugh and David Lloyd Jones (Naxos 8.553696 – DL Roundup April 2009)2 or Raphael Wallfisch with Richard Dickins (Nimbus NI5763 – review), but loses nothing in the process.

The early Winter Idyll is an attractive work, with the influence of DvořŠk’s tone poems apparent, though it’s not especially seasonal – as the booklet admits, the reason for the title is unknown.

The Cotswold Symphony marks an advance in style, though not especially towards the Holst to come, and it receives a convincing performance. Elegy, performed in excerpt on that Lyrita CD, is the best movement, but the whole work is attractive. I wonder what that magician Sir Thomas Beecham might have made of it, but Sir Andrew and his team are strong advocates. If, however, you already have JoAnn Falletta’s Naxos recording, which also contains Winter Idyll and Indra (details above), or Douglas Bostock’s (ClassicO, reissued at super-budget price by Alto, ALC1170 – review), you may rest content.

The Moorside Suite, originally for brass band, sounds well in orchestral garb, though I must confess to a general preference for Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’ music as performed in their original forms, as, for example, performed by Denis Wick with the London Wind Orchestra, preserved by Presto on one of their special CDs or as a download (Holst Suites Nos. 1 and 2 and Hammersmith, VW English Folk Song Suite: Resonance CDRSN3006). The Grimethorpe Colliery Band – was there ever a more evocative name? – play the original Moorside Suite on Decca Eloquence 4802323, 2 CDs – review.

Appropriately, the programme concludes with a colourful performance of the Scherzo from the symphony on which Holst was working at the end of his life. Had he completed it, I think it might have ranked alongside any of the Vaughan Williams symphonies. We shall never know, but Davis and the BBC Phil give us an intriguing taster of what might have been.

It also receives a very fine performance on an album of Holst music conducted by Richard Hickox. There’s very little to choose between them, and the older Chandos recording holds up very well; it’s also been reissued on a desirable, well-nigh essential, mid-price release containing the Fugal Overture, Somerset Rhapsody, Egdon Heath, Hammersmith and Capriccio (CHAN10911X – review review).  That's your go-to Holst recording after The Planets.

The new recording, as heard in 24/96 format and presumably on the SACD, outshines the Lyrita, good as that is for its age, but the Falletta recording can also be obtained in 24-bit sound for a good deal less than the Chandos asking price of £13.99; Presto have the 24/96 Naxos for £6.51. I still don’t understand why 24-bit downloads cost so much more than the physical SACD, which typically costs around £12; surely the latter is more expensive to produce? It’s not just a Chandos problem, though with their surround downloads at a whacking £19.99, almost twice the price of the disc, it’s especially acute there.

I found myself needing to increase the volume for Volume 3 and then finding the louder passages too loud, a complaint which I had of several Chandos recordings of that period. I found that Volume 4 also benefited from a slight boost, but, happily, without feeling that the dynamic range was then too wide for the louder passages.

Not essential Holst, then – I’d reserve that appellation for the Hickox reissue – but an attractive addition to the ongoing Chandos series. I look forward to the next volume taking less than five years to appear.  Life is too short to wait so long, as the author of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poets were all too well aware.

1 Caveat emptor : they also have it for £53.25!

2 The passionato link no longer applies.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Rob Barnett




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