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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
A Winter Idyll, H 31 (1897) [9.30]
Cotswolds Symphony, H 47 (1899-1900) [23.42]
Invocation, H 75 (1911) [7.44]
A Moorside Suite, H 173 (1928) (arr. for string orchestra) [14.05]
Indra, H 66 (1903) [15.19]
Scherzo, H 192 (1933-34) [5.52]
Guy Johnston (cello)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, Manchester, UK, 2018

Chandos continue their leisurely progress through the orchestral works of Gustav Holst commenced under the late Richard Hickox with this Volume 4 of the series, in which the most substantial novelty comes in the shape of the composer’s own string arrangement of his Moorside Suite, presented here in an edition by Colin Matthews published in 1994; Chandos make no such claims, but so far as I can discover this is the first recording of the string version although an alternative arrangement by Philip Lane has appeared on CD in a performance conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Holst made his own re-scoring with a view to performance by his own school orchestra at St Paul’s (transposing the score in the process) but in the event it proved too difficult for the players and he wrote the Brook Green Suite for them instead. It works well for the strings, although one can understand that the ideal richness of sound in the central movements might well have proved challenging for young arms and fingers; there are elements of warmth here which remind me of Finzi. Holst’s daughter Imogen made her own arrangement of the Nocturne for strings, which she recorded for Lyrita; but in view of her own strenuous efforts to make her father’s music conform to her own view of the expected standard, she made what Colin Matthews describes as “substantial changes”. It comes as no real surprise to find that these were quite unnecessary, the lighter editorial hand of Matthews himself being all that was needed to produce a performable and effective score.

Mind you, as I pointed out back in 2012 when I reviewed a Naxos collection of Holst’s orchestral music conducted by JoAnn Falletta, Imogen Holst’s editorial ministrations rarely did any sort of justice to her father’s music which was further disadvantaged by her consignment to the category of “early horrors” of a whole raft of scores of which she disapproved. That included four of the six works which comprise this disc, three of which also featured on the Naxos compilation. I make no apology whatsoever in repeating here some of the observations on the music which I made when reviewing that earlier disc, since the works themselves still remain relatively unknown and deserve rescuing from the obscurity to which her 1950 book effectively banished them.

She described the Cotswolds Symphony as having “nothing to build upon except the imitation Tudor heartiness of Edward German”. Now that we know German’s music better, we can see that there was a great deal more to him than mock-Tudor pastiche; but the description does the symphony no favours either. It is a magnificent piece, not profound perhaps, but full of joie de vivre and showing an expert command of the orchestra which was to remain with Holst all his life. And the slow movement, an elegy in memory of William Morris, which even Imogen Holst admits has “moments,” is a heartfelt tribute to a figure whom we nowadays remember principally as an artist and designer but whom Holst also respected as a social reformer. It is typical that his daughter selects for comment the appearance here of the phrase senza espress which she sees as “the beginning of a line of thought that was to lead him through the ‘dead’ pp of Neptune to the mysterious monotony of Egdon Heath.” She regards Egdon Heath as one of the greatest of her father’s works, but there is nothing of that ‘monotony’ (an odd choice of word) anywhere in the Cotswolds Symphony whose music is never other than totally life-affirming. This new disc is the third recording of the work, and it is suitably ebullient and meditative by turns, rather brisker than Bostock’s version on Classico and all the better for it.

Regarding the Winter Idyll, Imogen Holst said that it makes “doleful reading” and describes the music as “borrowed from Grieg”. Again, one could hardly imagine a more inaccurate description; there is almost nothing in Grieg (except possibly some of the passages from the unfinished opera Olav Trygvason) that has the same forcefulness as Holst demonstrates here. It is not ‘idyllic’ music, that is true, if one imagines ‘idyll’ to imply a Delius-like meditation on nature; instead we have a depiction of winter in all its facets, outdoor games and all. Although it is an earlier work than anything else on this disc, there are hints here of the future Holst style, including a beautiful unaccompanied cor anglais solo. Davis again gives the score plenty of bounce, more extrovert perhaps than Falletta on Naxos but allowing the music time to breathe, in a manner that the more headlong speed of David Atherton on the pioneering Lyrita recording was prepared to admit.
Indra was the first work that Holst wrote after falling under the influence of his studies of Sanskrit literature, and the music here immediately sounds much more redolent of the composer as he was to develop, although Imogen Holst sourly observes that “there is very little trace of a newly discovered world of thought in this particular manifestation of the god of rain and storm”. All right, the opening is rather Wagnerian in tone, but there is an excitement and assurance to the writing that goes a great deal further than mere imitation. Again, Davis is considerably slower than Atherton’s première recording on Lyrita, more in line with Falletta’s approach, and the dramatic dividends yielded by this more trenchant delivery lends the music additional stature.

Davis is also rather slower in the Scherzo from Holst’s unfinished symphony written in the final year of his life than Sir Adrian Boult was in his pioneering recording on Lyrita. This is a sparkling piece, a sort of cross between the planets Mercury and Uranus, and benefits perhaps from the slightly drier acoustic on the old performance; still, it makes a rousing conclusion to a generally most enjoyable disc.

The one real dud in this collection is the performance of the Invocation for cello and orchestra, another of those works which Imogen Holst attempted to suppress but which was first unearthed some thirty years or more ago by Julian Lloyd Webber and Vernon Handley in a recording which still finds a place in the catalogue with various assorted couplings. It also featured on David Atherton’s Lyrita collection in a performance where the solo cello part was taken by Alexander Baillie. This performance under Davis clocks in at some two minutes shorter than either of those rivals; and much faster tempo, shaving nearly a quarter off the duration of what is in any event a short piece, does the music no favours whatsoever. The moonlight enchantment which is conjured by the composer (its companion piece for violin and orchestra was entitled Song of the night) is sacrificed almost entirely, as is the limpid clarity of those pages which anticipate The Planets; what we get instead is a nicely lyrical rhapsodic movement with almost no sense of atmosphere whatsoever. I suspect that Davis and Johnston may have been attempting to minimise the diffuse nature of the music and provide a sense of more solidly ongoing symphonic structure, but the attempt misfires badly. That is a pity, although the remainder of the performances on this well-filled disc are most welcome, and those who did not earlier purchase the Naxos collection under Falletta should not hesitate to invest in this one.

But I must conclude by repeating many of the final observations from my review of that Naxos CD, which remain as valid today as they did six years ago. There is still far too much Holst that remains unavailable, which is an unforgiveable slight to the reputation of one of Britain’s major composers. The BBC broadcast a complete performance of the genuinely funny opera The Perfect Fool under Vernon Handley in 1995 with a nearly ideal cast, but this performance remains unreleased (although it can be heard on the internet) and we still await a commercial recording of this major work. We have only ever had two brief excerpts from the grand opera Sita, written during the years when Holst’s genius was reaching its maturity. There are no currently available recordings either of the complete Welsh folksong arrangements (there was once a briefly available LP, excerpts from which have recently resurfaced) which Holst made towards the end of his life, although they are marvels of re-imagination of the traditional melodies. We have never had an absolutely complete recording of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Willcocks omitted some of the best movements, such as the male-voice Hymn to Agni). The magnificent Hecuba’s lament is also needed. And this is to ignore the unpublished works. Such a situation is an absolute disgrace, which record companies should address urgently – and never mind the brickbats cast at the music by the composer’s daughter. It may be objected that many of the works mentioned here are choral works; but earlier volumes in this series have included chorus, so that should be no real objection. So there is plenty there to investigate.

I must not fail to mention that the recording here is excellent throughout, and the booklet presentation, with Colin Matthews’s pertinent observations translated into both French and German, is a model of its kind.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Brian Wilson ~ Nick Barnard


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