HOLST: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 = The Mystic Trumpeter Op. 18; First Choral Symphony Op. 41 – Susan Gritton, sop./ BBC Sym. Orch. and Chorus/ Sir Andrew Davis – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5127, 69:20 (10/29/13) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Most of us have a musical connection to Gustav Holst through his orchestral suite The Planets. Despite his name, not everyone realizes Holst was a British composer, born in Cheltenham in 1874. Holst actually had a wide and varied output of music, much written in the folk idiom that was so popular during his time.
This SACD/CD contains two works; the first The Mystic Trumpeter composed in 1904. The work is a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, and it marks a more personal work by Holst, whose earlier works were more Wagnerian in spirit. Holst revised the work eight years after he composed it, but he only heard it performed twice during his lifetime. Holst titled the work a Scena for Soprano and Orchestra. It is performed wonderfully by soprano Susan Gritton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. The SACD sound is firstrate, with very precise imaging up front and the sound of Fairfield Halls in Croyden in the rear channels.
The second work on the disc is Holst’s First Choral Symphony. Holst composed the symphony in draft form in 1923. His heavy teaching schedule interfered with composition, so the outline of the piece languished until Holst took time off and retreated to his some to do nothing but create. The work was first premiered in Leeds in October of 1925 to a decidedly mixed reception.
The text of the work is from Keats, and many critics considered the symphony uneven in theme and execution. There was a feeling that the Keats texts were chosen haphazardly and not properly related. The symphony is written in the traditional four-movement structure, but some sections are sometimes performed separately.
As time has passed, the Choral Symphony has been looked at more favorably, and there are many recordings of the work. The performance presented on this disc is excellent, and many will find the piece inspiring and interesting. The mystical early sections of the symphony are very well recorded, and as the piece builds to a more bombastic sound the recording never becomes overwhelmed or distorted. The image of the orchestra and chorus are fixed in their proper positions, and the extended range of the SACD serves the dynamics of the work admirably.
If you are wanting to get beyond The Planets, this disc is an excellent introduction to Holst and his choral and vocal writing.