This release constitutes the fourth volume in Chandos’s series of Gustav Holst’s orchestral music, begun ten years ago with what proved to be Richard Hickox’s final project, and continued under Sir Andrew Davis. This latest issue is distinguished throughout with fine playing and internal balance; the technical quality of the recording is in the superlative class.
Much of the music here comes from Holst’s earliest years, but already, in his very first orchestral work – Winter Idyll (1897 – Holst in his earliest twenties) – we can readily sense a natural feel for instrumental colour as a medium and although Colin Matthews’s booklet note does not provide a possible inspiration for the work, I doubt if Holst was unaware of the poem ‘Snow Bound – A Winter Idyll’ by the American abolitionist and strong supporter of feminist writers John Greenleaf Whittier. The nature of the music is – naturally – quite ‘wintry’, with blustery phrases and lively orchestration. If the character of this individual composer has not quite emerged here, it is a remarkably singular work.The Cotswolds Symphony is just a year or two later and is somewhat short-breathed, perhaps exceptionally so for the period. The first movement, in particular, is light, modest and unassuming – nothing at all to do with large-scale turn-of-the-century symphonism – and rather surprisingly seems to look forward to the English folk-based pastoral idiom of Vaughan Williams. If the first movement is essentially somewhat bland, the slow second, ‘Elegy in memoriam William Morris’, saves the work. It may not be wholly flawless as a structure, but its emotional appeal and unique scoring (the mature Holst here is strongly suggested) make for compelling listening. The textures of the third movement faintly anticipate several short passages in The Planets, as Holst’s creative character begins to emerge in the pages leading to the coda. We also hear such suggestions in the opening bars of the Finale, which is, however, more conventionally structured, the material somewhat less consistently characterful.
The mature Invocation (A Song of the Evening) is a gem of a masterpiece; it is a pity that Holst did not expand the work into a Concerto, either using the material further or providing fresh material for additional movements. The performance here by Guy Johnston is quite superb; he creates and encapsulates the nature of this remarkable music (1911) admirably and the technical quality of his playing is immaculate.
A Moorside Suite was originally composed for brass, but was later transcribed by Holst for strings. It inhabits a similar world to the St Paul’s Suite and the two Suites for military band. It is a quite lovely piece of music, the Englishness of the pre-War folksong movement now totally absorbed. It is admirably played and beautifully balanced. Indra (1903) is Holst’s only Symphonic Poem (Egdon Heath is not so designated). The narrative is finely laid out and the music is clearly orchestrated by a master of the medium – the advance on the Cotswolds Symphony in almost every respect is quite startling. It receives a fine account indeed, but the narrative does not invariably translate into a coherent symphonic structure; nevertheless an early triumph for the young Holst.
The concluding work is the Scherzo of 1933-34, the only surviving complete movement from a planned Symphony dating from the last year of Holst’s life. In the nature of things, the superior maturity and individuality of this work contrast sharply with the comparative (but only comparative) commonplace passages in the far earlier works. It lasts a mere six minutes, which debars it from public performance these days, in which case the recording medium is the only way in which we can experience it, but it would be difficult to imagine anything better than this. We look forward to the next volume with eager anticipation.