This is a hugely valuable addition to Gustav Holst’s discography. Three reasons lead to this conclusion. Primarily, for the first time, all the composer’s Christmas carols can be found on a single disc. This includes two that are premiere recordings: ‘A Dream of Christmas’ (1917) and ‘I saw three ships’, the first number from Three Carols (1916/17). The second reason is the ‘complete’ organ works. Four early pieces dating from Holst’s schooldays are given their debut recording. I guess that for most enthusiasts, these will be new discoveries. And finally, the intricate organ transcription for four hands of the ‘Scherzo’ from the unfinished Symphony is an interesting addition.
I intend to consider the premiere recordings in this review. The old favourites have had much ink expended on them. That said, I enjoyed the Godwine Choir’s rendition of ‘Personent Hodie’ (this has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays), ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, and the less-than-pew-friendly ‘Bring us good ale’. But my favourite carol here is the ‘Wassail Song’ with its ‘intricate counter melodies and changes in texture mak[ing] this a work of some complexity.’
‘A Dream of Christmas’ is new to me. This setting was made in 1917 and published two years later. The anonymous words were mined from Mary Segar’s Medieval Anthology (1915). The text is set for two soprano parts (often in thirds) with a piano or string orchestra accompaniment, but here played on the organ. A noteworthy feature of this carol is the way the words of Christ are sung in the key of D major, whilst the rest of the setting is in the Dorian mode.
‘I saw three ships’ is a well-known carol, especially in the versions by John Rutter and David Willcocks. Holst has taken the traditional tune and provided a vibrant setting for unison voices and organ (or orchestral) accompaniment. The words of this carol have an esoteric message which would have appealed to the composer. This refers to Joseph of Arimathea’s sea trips to Cornwall and, on one occasion, legendarily bringing Jesus and the Virgin Mary with him.
The four organ pieces were composed in 1890-91 when Holst was attending Cheltenham Grammar School. They are very much of their time and owe much to the prevailing ‘Village Organist’ school of Victorian organ music. The first, a March in C major, has a decent trio tune and an equally vibrant march section. The captivating ‘Allegretto pastorale’ bounces along in typically rustic manner. I disagree with the liner notes that state this is a ‘whimsical piece’: there is a depth in the middle section that is thoughtful and introverted. It is a little stodgy in places, but thoroughly enjoyable. The Postlude in C major would make a good recessional in 2020. Little touches of Jeremiah Clarke here and there give this a sense of musical continuity. The Funeral March is massive in scale. Lasting nearly ten-minutes this work is full of interest. The liner notes note the eccentric registration which has been retained here. I must confess that it seems reasonable to me. It certainly adds colour and variety to what could become a touch longwinded. These four pieces may not be masterworks, but they are of some significance, and provide a valuable insight into the composer’s early years. Bearing in mind that Holst was only 16 years of age when he wrote them, they hold up well. They deserve an occasional outing, and it is great that they are available here for the first time. Well done EM Records!
Gustav Holst’s Scherzo has been available in its orchestral version since 1972 when Adrian Boult issued it on Lyrita SRCS 56. Further recordings have been made by Richard Hickox in 1996 and Sir Andrew Davis in 2018. This work pushed Holst’s musical language in a new direction. The Musical Times summed it up well: ‘it sounds too inclusive...characteristically angular, rather chilly in temperature and European rather than national in style...as if Hindemith had taken a hand in a scherzo by Vaughan Williams.’ At the time of the premiere in February 1935, there was some debate as to whether the ‘Scherzo’ was standalone or part of a projected Symphony. Vaughan Williams settled the argument in a letter to The Times: he recalled that Holst had told him that he intended to write a symphony and had composed the Scherzo first. The quixotic organ transcription by Richard Brasier sounds very complex to play, clearly pushing the possibilities of four-handed organ music to its limits. It is a worthy experiment,
The Godwine Choir with their conductor and accompanying instrumental and vocal soloists give a studied and enthusiastic performance of all this music. The liner notes are exceptional. There is a long introduction by Chris Cope, chairman of The Holst Society, which puts the entire CD in context. This is followed by a useful biography of the composer by Em Marshall-Luck. Details of all the Christmas music and Organ works are essential reading: all the texts are included with helpful programme notes. Organist Richard Brasier provides a short background note to his transcription of the ‘Scherzo’. Biographies of all the main performers complete this comprehensive booklet.
This is an ideal Christmas present for all enthusiasts of Gustav Holst in particular, and English music in general. As noted above it features all 17 of the composer’s Christmas Carols. The organ music is an attractive bonus.Track Listing:
Gustav HOLST (1874–1934)
Christmas Day (1910)
In the Bleak Midwinter (1904)
Four Old English Carols (1907) 1. 'A Babe is born’; 2. ‘Now let us sing’; 3. Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; 4. ‘The Saviour of the World is born’
March in C Major for organ (1890/91)
Two Carols (1907–1916) 1. ‘A Welcome Song’; 2. ‘Terly Terlow’
Allegretto Pastorale’ for organ (1890/91)
Lullay My Liking (1916)
Three Carols (1916–1917) 1. ‘I saw three ships’; 2. ‘Personent hodie’; 3. ‘Masters in this Hall’
Postlude in C for organ (1890/91)
Of One that is so Fair and Bright (1916)
This Have I Done for My True Love (1916)
Bring Us in Good Ale (1916)
Funeral March in G Minor for organ (1890/91)
A Dream of Christmas (1917)
Wassail Song (pub. 1931)
Scherzo for organ (1933) (arr. Richard BRASIER b.1988)
Godwine Choir/Alex Davan Wetton and Edward Hughes, John Wright (organ), Richard Brasier (organ), Tom Bell (organ), Douglas Tang (organ), Charlotte Evans (oboe), Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (cello)
Rec. 13-14 July 2019, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead; 22 August 2019, Hereford Cathedral (Scherzo)
EM RECORDS EMR CD062