HOLST: The Hymn of Jesus; The Perfect Fool–Ballet Music; Egdon Heath – BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult – HDTT

by | Dec 21, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

HOLST: The Hymn of Jesus; The Perfect Fool–Ballet Music; Egdon Heath – BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult

HDTT HDCD215, 45:01 [avail. in various formats from www.highdeftapetranfers.com (this is standard CD)] ****:

Taken from a Decca issue recorded 15 March 1961 in Kingsway Hall, London, we have here three major scores from Gustav Holst 1874-1934) led by one of his major interpreters, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983). The Hymn of Jesus (1917), first performed in 1920, came at a strange time in British history: in the aftermath of WW I, its setting of a Gnostic text in plainchant style appears to validate the experience of suffering. Utilizing two separate choirs to create an antiphonal effect, Holst also spaces his voice entries to distance the musical tones and invocations in time. In two parts, the Hymn’s opening Prelude itself is subdivided into two sections. The old chant Pange Lingua supplies the motive for the Prelude, along with the Vexilla Regis Prodeunt that will figure prominently as the Hymn. The G Minor key, along with Holst’s employment of fourths and fifths, double basses and organ pedal, the soft tenor trombone and snare parts, create a mystical effect that we liken to Venus and Uranus in The Planets. The second half of the work sings Vexilla Regis Prodeunt in divided voice choirs to elevate the new-found peace to radiant heights. Colorful and strangely alluring, this pacific work continues to reign among Holst’s most-performed compositions.

The Perfect Fool (1922) was conceived a parody-opera by Holst, but he remained unhappy with the final result. The twelve-minute ballet has three titled sections: The Spirits of Earth, The Spirits of Water, The Spirits of Air. The Ballet actually opens the opera, and the trombone entry and brass fanfares soon align the piece with Uranus from The Planets. The Wizard’s trombone invocation leads to a solo viola and delicate tracery by the battery and harp, the instrumentation vividly clear and exotic. The modal harmonies often sound like music from Nielsen’s Aladdin. A bassoon solo receives an answer from trombone, tuba, and the full complement of brass and strings, fff. The air spirits certainly lather and swirl, and the dance becomes a pagan rite. The viola again introduces a final section, pastoral and mystical, and the piece ends a striking chord.

The 1927 Egdon Heath celebrates the work of the grim naturalistic writer Thomas Hardy, whose The Return of the Native remained dear to Holst’s heart. Holst took a quote directly from Hardy as his rubric:

    “A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature—neither ghastly, hateful nor ugly; neither     commonplace, unmeaning nor tame; but like man, slighted and enduring; and withal     singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony."

The somber bass melody represents the “swarthy monotony” of the setting, while the scurrying figures in oboe and strings produce a ghostly dance that does little to lighten the character of the dark affect. The violas have a lovely tune, set as a kind of dirge (andante) answered by upper strings and brass. Modal harmonies predominate, a kind of uneasy, martial or valedictory atmosphere for a bit of a round dance, neither hateful nor ugly. A lonely trumpet calls, and winds and sad strings answer, only to fade into the implacable distance. Fine fare for Boult, a bit unsettling to the rest of us.

— Gary Lemco

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