Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Gustav Holst Rare Orchestral music in Naxos

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) Orchestral Music
Walt Whitman Overture, Op.7, H42 (1899) Symphony in F major, Op.8, H47, ‘The Cotswolds’ (1899-1900) A Winter Idyll, H31 (1897) Japanese Suite, Op.33, H126 (1915)
Indra – Symphonic Poem, Op.13, H66 (1903)
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falleta

Many years ago I recall talking to a lady at the Glasgow Promenade Concerts. We had just heard a fine performance of the ubiquitous The Planets.  She suggested to me that it was unfortunate that there was not more music like this in the composer’s catalogue. And I think at that time that she was right. Over the years, many listeners must have approached some of Holst’s more ‘neo-classical’ works such as the Fugal Overture or the Double Concerto or even Egdon Heath and felt a little disappointment that they seemed to be written in a completely different musical language to the best known work. The present CD to a large extent remedies this deficiency. I am not suggesting that these piece are in way ‘better’ than The Planets – however at least some of them provide  the listener with the ‘romance’ and the ‘Wagnerian’ power of the masterpiece that often seem to be missing in the later works.

I have never liked the ‘Walt Whitman’ Overture since first hearing it on the Classico CD (CLASSCD284) with the Munchener Symphoniker conducted by Douglas Bostock. I cannot really put my finger on the problem…
The Overture was composed in 1899: some seven years after the great American poet had died.  Listeners will know that at that time Whitman had been ‘discovered’ by British composers including R.V.W. whose Towards the Unknown Region, and Sea Symphony used texts derived from the poet’s Leaves of Grass. Holst himself would later compose The Mystic Trumpeter and the Dirge to Two Veterans based on Whitman’s poems.
The Overture is fairly and squarely composed in a Germanic style with a huge hat tip to Wagner. It just seems a little overblown for my taste – I think perhaps because it tends to play down the mystical side of the poet’s work.  Yet it is an exciting piece of music that deserves an occasional airing at orchestral concerts.

The ‘Cotswolds’ Symphony was a work that I always wanted to hear. Yet, I fear that I was a little disappointed when I heard it performed on the above-mentioned Classico CD. I think that I felt that it did not quite paint a musical picture of that fair region of England.
Gustav Holst wrote the work on the cusp of the new century – between 1899 and 1900.The work was completed at Skegness in Lincolnshire. At this time the composer was a trombonist in the Carl Rosa Orchestra as well as the Scottish Orchestra. The work was duly performed in 1902 by the ‘enterprising’ Sir Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra.
The Symphony is written in four stylistically unbalanced movements – and I think that this spoils this work for me.  The opening movement is somewhat rusticated –with lots of allusions (if not direct quotes) to English folk music. It is a ‘march’ that fairly romps along.
The second movement is the deeply moving ‘Elegy’ (In Memoriam William Morris). This is a shadowy, unsmiling work that is funereal in its exposition. It is conceived as a processional march – with a massive climax in the middle section.  I am not a huge fan of Morris’ escapism; however there is nothing of the daydream about this music. I guess that it can be used as a stand-alone piece. Suggestions have been made that this is really the composer’s response to the Boer War, rather than to Morris himself.
The equilibrium of the work is wrenched back to lighter matters with the ‘scherzo’ which balances the ‘will o’ the wisp’ with a little ‘clod-hopping’. It is a good essay in creating all the fun of the ‘fairground’. There are a few moments of a serious nature. Lighter matters this movement may represent, but this is not ‘light music’ in any accepted sense.
The ‘finale’ is a joy to behold. Once again it is a fusion of the world of folk-music and Johannes Brahms. Yet this is a well-written piece of music that Lewis Foreman has suggested has all the trappings of ‘a harvest hymn, a celebration at the end of the country people’s annual cycle.’ All in all it is an interesting work, if somewhat lacking in unity.

A Winter Idyll is a short tone-poem composed in 1897 whilst the composer was studying at the Royal College of Music.  Imogen Holst has noted that her father saw his musical training as running in a trajectory from Mendelssohn, Grieg and Wagner. Certainly there are nods towards ‘Fingal’s Cave’ in this present work. She adds that Stanford’s influence is not too far away from some of the pages in this score.  It is a deliciously romantic work that may or may not suggest the winter scene to the listener. However, it is truly beautiful music that reflects considerable skill and invention on Holst’s behalf. The work was apparently never performed in the composer’s lifetime.

I have always felt that Holst’s Japanese Suite is one of the ‘forgotten gems’ of his opus. In many ways this romantic piece sits well beside The Planets. This work was composed during 1915 when the composer had taken a break from the larger work.
It was composed at the request of a Japanese dancer called Michio Ito who was performing at the Coliseum. He wanted a work based on Japanese melodies.  The story goes that Holst did not know any so, the dancer whistled a selection.
The Japanese Suite has six-movement that consists of four dances preceded by a prelude and an interlude at the suite’s midpoint.  I agree with Michael Kennedy who has suggested that this work does not sound particularly oriental. If I were to characterise the piece I would suggest that it is very definitely a spin-off of The Planets. Both ‘Venus’ and ‘Mercury’ are never too fat away in mood and texture.  Stravinsky is another model – with The Rite of Spring and Petrushka.
It is not known whether the Suite was ever given in its intended form. However, it received its first performance at a Proms Concert on 1 September 1919. 

Holst developed his interest in Indian philosophy at the turn of the twentieth-century. Keith Anderson suggests that is was perhaps through his father’s second wife who was a theosophist. This interest resulted in a number of important works including the well-known songs from the Rig Veda, the operas Savitri and Sita and the present work ‘Indra’, Symphonic Poem, Op 13.
This impressive tone-poem was composed in 1903 and is based on the legend of the Indian god of the heavens, of rain and storm and his conflict with the demon Vritra. Vritra had been brought to life by the Brahman Tvashtri to avenge the death of his son.  The legend relates how the demon was eventually defeated by Indra with the help of Vishnu. The drought that had been caused by Vritra is finally ended –and as the rain falls the people rejoice.
What is most remarkable about this work is the sheer brilliance of the orchestration. Imogen Holst has noted the contrasts between the quieter sections and the more ‘bombastic’ music. It is a score that was certainly ahead of its time – at least in British music. I suggest that it can be listened to without reference to the myth and can be seen as a contrast between cool, impressionistic music and more aggressive passages that are more Wagnerian or perhaps Straussian than the music that Holst would come to write in later years. It is a stunning work that does not deserve its obscurity. On a personal note it is one of my favourite Holst scores.

The sound quality of this disc is excellent- as is expected from Naxos. The Ulster Orchestra under their Principal Conductor JoAnn Falletta give an authoritative account of these scores. I would have liked slightly more detailed liner notes. Lewis Foreman’s for the Classico editions of the ‘Cotswolds’ Symphony are a model of their kind.
All of the works presented here have already been recorded in the past, either on Lyrita under Sir Adrian Boult or David Atherton and on Classico with Douglas Bostock. 
It would be invidious to suggest which recording was ‘better’ than the other. Holst enthusiasts will demand this new CD to sit alongside the earlier releases. It is encouraging that Naxos has chosen to record these relatively rare, but extremely worthy pieces. Furthermore, I can heartily recommend this CD to all those people who long for more of the same of (or at least stylistically analogous to) The Planets.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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