HOLST: The Hymn of Jesus, Op. 37; DELIUS: Sea Drift; Cynara – Roderick Williams, bar./ Halle Choir/ Halle Youth Choir/ Halle Orch./ Sir Mark Elder – Hill 7535, 62:25 [Distr. by Allegro] (9/2/13) ****:
Immediately after his completion of The Planets, Gustav Holst set to work on The Hymn of Jesus in 1917, based on his reading of the Apocryphal Acts of St. John, specifically the words, “Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing.” War service interrupted the completion of the Hymn until 1919. The opening section includes two plainchants, Pange lingua and Vexilla regis. The plainsong enjoys an archaic sonority, including his own instrument, the English horn, trombones, and flutes. The Vexilla regis appears on the organ in fourths, to be taken a distant choir of sopranos. The Hymn proper opens with a massive double chorus, led to perfection by Elder’s balancing hand (rec. 15 March 2012). The assertion “Glory to the Father!” ushers in the “Amen” in A Minor and F Minor from sopranos and altos, respectively. An andante section ensues, “Fain I would be saved” to be answered with “Fain I would be known,” an allegro in 5/4 which may be a residuum of the composer’s Mars. The section that contains the words, “To you who gaze, a lamp am I” conveys Holst’s idiosyncratic religiosity, a mysticism he harbored from 1892, when he first heard Bach’s B Minor Mass.
The conceit of religious ecstasy as a dance continues with “Give ye heed unto my dancing,” which reaches a crescendo, “For yours is the Passion of man.” Blazing trumpets carry the same militancy we know from Mars, while the Vexilla regis reappears in 12/8 and wordless sopranos invoke a mere “Ah” of transcendent affirmation. Shades of Molly Bloom. The admonition, “Learn how to suffer” sings against the Pange lingua, perhaps an ironic commentary on the slaughter of WW I, all in the name of “the King’s banners.” A well-earned applause follows this live performance.
Delius composed Sea Drift in 1904, taking an American subject from poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, selectively edited. The analogy derives from the death of a female sea bird, the lament of the male, and a commentary on mortality by a human observer. Henry Wood introduced the work to Britain in 1908. A single movement divided into seven sections that flow in relation to the text, Sea Drift partakes of an intense, pantheistic emotion, as the boy, the human witness, becomes increasingly involved in the now-cosmic drama. Baritone Roderick Williams enunciate clearly, moving through arioso and recitative passages that lilt in tender melancholy. If the music occasionally aims at an American allegory for Tristan and the Liebesnacht, it likewise becomes somberly reminiscent of Poe’s Raven, when the chorus – enacting the she-bird’s spirit – tells him not to delude himself. The “We two together no more” bespeaks an insufferable loss and the natural resignation such bereavement entails. Once more, Mark Elder and his choral forces have done good service (rec. 17 March 2011) to Delius’ daring harmony, which certainly helped establish his international repute.
The poetry of ‘Decadent’ poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) appealed to Delius, the verses sadly aware of loss, human limits and frailty, and mortality. Sir Thomas Beecham asked Delius for any unpublished works he might submit for a planned Delius Festival in 1929. The blind Delius dictated the unfinished parts of his score to friend Eric Fenby, who later recalled “the thrill when I took down the telling chord on the trombones on the final word ‘Cynara’!” The completed work was dedicated to yet another tragic figure, composer Philip Heseltine. Mark Elder and Roderick Williams (rec. 4 February 2012) capture the hedonistic lines of the poet Horace as rendered by Dowson, opening with a ritornello lament from the violin solo, courtesy of leader Lyn Fletcher. The orchestral sighs of emotional desolation might well nod to Wagner. Baritone Williams loves to linger on “thee” as he relives his old passion in four extended verses, aware of its persistent intrusion into the present. A brief dance erupts of strewn roses and wasted lusts, but the poet collapses into his wonted desire for love-death, a potent expression of Delius’ colorful control of his chosen materials.