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CD Review

British Composers

Gustav Holst

  • The Perfect Fool - Ballet
  • Egdon Heath
  • The Planets *
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
* New Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Boult
EMI CDM 66934 ADD 76:47
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Edward Elgar

  • The Music Makers *
  • The Dream of Gerontius
* Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
* London Philharmonic and Choir/Adrian Boult
Nicolai Gedda, tenor
Helen Watts, contralto
Robert Lloyd, bass
John Alldis Choir and London Philharmonic Choir
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Boult
EMI Classics CDM 66540 ADD 2CDs: 75:10, 59:49
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These CDs are two new releases in EMI Classics' ongoing British Composers series. They are mid-priced, and contain a generous amount of music. Furthermore, the recordings reissued therein have withstood the test of time, and their new availability at a lower price is an excellent value for those who want the repertoire… or a souvenir of Sir Adrian Boult's conducting at its autumnal best.

Holst's popular reputation as a one-work composer could be put to rest if everyone who needed a recording of The Planets acquired the one under review here. Both Egdon Heath and the ballet music from The Perfect Fool show that Holst's vivid yet sensitive use of the orchestra in his astrological suite was no fluke. Egdon Heath, an homage to Thomas Hardy, is a study in browns and grays, and one of the finer examples of English impressionism. Holst has captured the personality of an uncompromising landscape in a tone poem of exquisite subtlety. The music from The Perfect Fool finds the composer in a jolly mood. A magician (assertive melody on the trombones) invokes the spirits of Earth, Water, and Fire, who dance in their turn. The opera that these dances come from has fallen into obscurity, but the ballet music retains its place through its rough charm and good humor. Here, as in The Planets, Holst cannot be accused of note-spinning; he says exactly what he needs to say and then moves along. Previn's recordings come from 1974, and they solidify his reputation as an excellent conductor of English music. The London Symphony plays well for him, and the sound holds up well.

This recording of The Planets was Sir Adrian Boult's fourth. (He would record yet another one in the late 1970s.) His connection with the work is unbeatable: he was the first man to conduct it, and he was well acquainted with the composer. This recording, taped in 1966, has acquired the status of a classic. Because it is a classic, it is permissible, perhaps, to throw a few stones at it, knowing that most of them will bounce off. After hearing many "wow" recordings of this music, returning to Boult's modest version is a bit like going from champagne to spring water. His concern is with characterization, and he doesn't seem interested in puffing the music up to impressive proportions. As a result, his Planets might seem a little dull at first, but if one listens a few times, one notices the care that Boult has taken with Holst's details – there are few "wows" but many "ah has." This softer and gentlemanly approach helps bring The Planets into alignment with each other. The New Philharmonia doesn't exactly bowl one over with its virtuosity; a trumpet "clam" in the first movement (like an old friend by now) is fairly typical of Boult's relaxed attitudes. Boult got excellent sound the last time around; on the present recording, it is passable, but not up to the standards that were available even at that time.

Boult's recordings of Edward Elgar's best known choral works also are classics, and here it is harder to have any reservations at all. The Music Makers was recorded at about the same time as The Planets, and it was Boult's first recording with Janet Baker. The text is by Arthur O'Shaughnessy (whose main career was zoology). It opens "We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams," and perhaps these words apply best to Elgar himself; the tune that runs through this work is the same as "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations, and the composer is the "theme" of those variations. Boult's recording is suffused with a dream-like euphoria, but not with a dream's vagueness. Baker is particularly moving in her solos, and the London Philharmonic Choir is strong throughout. If you like "Nimrod," then The Music Makers will give you 37 additional minutes in a similarly elegiac vein.

Elgar's friend Jaeger (Enigma's "Nimrod") asserted that The Dream of Gerontius was not a work that could be appreciated after one hearing. Well said, but the loving dedication of Boult's recording (made in 1975, and the conductor's valedictory choral recording) has tremendously persuasive powers. There was a time when this recording competed with versions led by Malcolm Sargent and John Barbirolli; neither of those seem to be in the catalogue at the moment, and among the "old classics," only Benjamin Britten's version still is around. Boult's soloists are jewels. Gerontius is sung operatically (but with subtlety and grace) by Gedda, whose faint accent provides an unexpected touch of exoticism. Perhaps this recording's finest moment is when Gerontius's soul is granted a lightning-flash glimpse of the Almighty; "Take me away," he exclaims, "and in the lowest deep / There let me be." No one I've heard captures that moment's agony and ecstasy as well as Gedda, and certainly not with such tonal beauty. Watts is a formidable angel, but she shows great compassion. As the Priest (and later, the Angel of the Agony), Robert Lloyd's dark bass scores more points, and his two arias also are highlights of this recording. Boult conducts like a convert, inspiring the choirs and the orchestra to spiritual heights. His conducting is not the most dramatic, but it is the most alluring, "sacred" as it is.

The Dream of Gerontius is not an easy work – it's like Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, but with the scale and flavor of Parsifal – but eventually every devotee of choral music needs to come to term with it. Boult's recording is an excellent opportunity.

Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle