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CD Review

Gustav Holst

Hyperion 66784

Works for Chorus and Orchestra

  • The Golden Goose, A Choral Ballet
  • The Morning of the Year, A Choral Ballet *
  • King Estmere, An Old English Ballad for Chorus & Orchestra
* Ghislaine Morgan, soprano
* Sarah Beinart, alto
* Jeremy Ovenden, tenor
Guildford Choral Society, The Philharmonia Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
Hyperion CDA66784 72:10
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mostly wonderful.

Mention Holst's name and, if the penny drops into the slot at all, the little memory-ticket that comes out will be The Planets. Holst has become a one-hit-wonder of the classical world, a shame since his catalogue is stuffed with great work, in many ways more interesting than the success which happened to last.

This CD, although it makes no claims, I believe consists of all premières: the early King Estmere and the complete versions of The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year. Lyrita recorded excerpts from the latter two as part of its marvelous Holst series, spearheaded by Imogen, the composer's daughter and champion. Imogen, an underrated conductor, gave lively performances of Holst's work. She also edited many of the scores in order to secure for them a greater possibility of getting played. She reduced The Golden Goose, for example, a work requiring chorus, orchestra, dancers, and mummers, to its instrumental sections only. A canny manager of Holst's posthumous career and a shrewd observer of the modern-music scene, she also kept hidden much of Holst's early work, as part of a general strategy to show Holst as a rebel only, rather as both heir and rebel. In her own study of her father's work, she continually stressed the prophetic, progressive elements in the music and failed to even mention many works. Only late in life did she open up the trunk. Thanks to this decision, we now have recordings of such works as The Mystic Trumpeter, The Cloud Messenger, and King Estmere.

However, Imogen's presentation of her father distorted his career. The Planets, for example, seems to come from nowhere, rather than from Holst's dogged determination over a period of years to find himself and to improve his technique. The latter was especially important to him. He advised his friend Vaughan Williams to write the pieces which would enable him to write better pieces later on. VW strongly disagreed. For Holst, technique cleared a path to personal expression. For VW, technique was never as important as the expression. Vaughan Williams could afford to subordinate technique's importance, since he had far more of it in his early works than Holst did. On the other hand, Vaughan Williams could afford to study in Germany and France, while Holst had to hustle just to make ends meet. Holst almost never had the time for composition that his friend did. Caught in his personal artistic maze, Holst writes operas, suites, chamber pieces, short orchestral squibs, even most of a symphony, to break through to himself. There's a huge amount of work that means aesthetically very little in itself, if we consider his mature output, but he needed to get it done. A drawing instructor once remarked to his students that they each had to do at least 100,000 bad drawings to become any good. Holst "did his stodge" and found his reward. He begins, in my opinion, to hit the right road around 1907-1908 with the Two Carols for choir, oboe, and cello and from then on goes from strength to strength. The Planets rests on a mountain of sheer hard work.

King Estmere comes from 1905 and shows us the following. Holst has mastered large, complex forces. His choice of text (from Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry) - I would suspect particularly the ballad rhythms of the text - leads him to adopt an idiom influenced by the modes of English folk song. The use of the ballad form (the same music for each stanza) could easily have degenerated into mere repetition, but Holst knows how to subtly stray from and, just as subtly, to return to the main material, much as Britten does in the later Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. In addition to the quasi-folk idiom, one finds bits of Parry, Stanford, and even Sullivan's Yeoman of the Guard. It's a choral piece from someone apparently untouched by the greater musical and psychological complexity of Elgar's oratorios. We also see Holst resorting to the model of Wagner's Götterdämmerung whenever he needs a broad climax. If we didn't have The Hymn of Jesus or the other two works on this program, the work would satisfy in itself. However, Holst's main appeal, at least to me, is the originality of his mature idiom, still buried beneath derivative clutter.

On the other hand, Holst wrote The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year, according to Imogen's Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst's Music, consecutively, from 1926 to 1927, well into his artistic maturity. Holst called both works "choral ballets," a term which may have derived from the madrigal ballets of the Renaissance and which Bantock seems to have revived for his Great God Pan, around 1917. I suspect Holst more influenced by the Elizabethans than by Bantock. Despite the identity of term and forces, the two Holst works aim at different things. Holst intended The Golden Goose for amateurs. Indeed, the first performance was given with the students of Morley College and St. Paul's Girls' School (Holst taught at both). The libretto - a fairy tale about the princess who never laughed - was devised by Jane M. Joseph, whom Holst considered his most promising pupil and who died very young. Holst also made several versions of the piece, including one for children and one consisting solely of instrumental numbers. As befits a work for amateurs, Holst comes up with dazzling tunes, nevertheless simple to sing. The hard work falls to the orchestra, but even here Holst simplifies. Holst's maturity is marked by a concern for a kind of mathematical elegance - that is, as few notes as possible and each note used to maximum effect - so the kind of simplification in The Golden Goose doesn't really mean compromise. Holst also emphasizes counterpoint at this time - in this work, mostly two-part counterpoint. The lines fit together like the sides of a well-made box, all the more amazing since if you consider each line separately, you'd likely conclude that it wouldn't go with its partner. This leads to great independence of each idea, emphasized by Holst's clear scoring.

The Morning of the Year, on the other hand, holds the honor of the first work commissioned by the BBC. It is designed for professionals. The counterpoint is far more complex, a greater number of lines, and Holst increases the complexity by writing in at least two keys at once and in mixed meters, both of which increase the independence of simultaneously-stated themes. Holst borrows ideas from his earlier Hymn of Jesus and Fugal Concerto, neither of them particularly easy. Holst conceived of the work as a kind of masque on the English rites of spring, with singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. The text concerns nature's recurring rebirth, mirrored in human pairing and courtship. The energy of the piece lies not, as with Stravinsky's Russian rites, in barbarism and human sacrifice, but in the deep wells of nature's vitality. Holst's "characters" are peasants, not primitives. The Morning of the Year may have a marginally less appealing surface than The Golden Goose, but it also holds you more strongly.

The performance is okay, with the orchestra outclassing the singers. The Guildford Choral Society comes across as an amateur community group, with extremely weak sopranos. Intonation is a little shakey, particularly from the sopranos, who sing under pitch (almost the right note, but not quite) almost all the time, but there's no outright disaster. The orchestra, on the other hand, gives the performances their zip. If Wetton had a better chorus and soloists, this would have been an outstanding CD. As it is, it's pretty good and, as I say, the only recording of two splendid works. If you like Holst at all, give this a try. The sound is fine.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet