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Holst: Orchestral Works, Vol 3 - Davis

Holst: Orchestral Works, Vol 3 - Davis

Chandos  CHSA 5127

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Holst: The Mystic Trumpeter, Op. 18; First Choral Symphony, Op. 41

Susan Gritton, soprano
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis


Composed originally in 1904 and revised in 1912, The Mystic Trumpeter received only two performances in Holst’s lifetime, and it was not revived until 1980. Holst based this work on a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The influence of Hindu thought is clearly present throughout the piece, while musically there are fingerprints of his later style too, particularly in the use of bitonality (two different keys used simultaneously). The ending, calm and beautifully serene, is wholly characteristic of the mature Holst’s ability to do the unexpected.

Holst drafted the First Choral Symphony in 1923, shortly after his largely unsuccessful attempt at grand opera with The Perfect Fool. The mixed reception that the Symphony received was to some extend provoked by his choice of texts. All are by Keats, but they are still vastly different one from another. Holst chose them for their ability to stimulate his musical imagination, and the fact that, verbally, they followed little or no sequence was of no great concern to him. In the texts from Endymion, for example, his exuberant side is given free rein, while Ode on a Grecian Urn reveals another side, one of calm and composure. ‘Fancy’, from Extracts from an Opera, is set as a whirling Scherzo, ‘Folly’s Song’ serving as a contrasting earthbound trio. Holst himself said of this Symphony: ‘I think the work as a whole is the best thing I have written.’

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Review by Graham Williams - September 29, 2013

This is in every way possible one of the finest discs of Holst's music that I have heard in a long time.

In a touching tribute to the late Richard Hickox, Susan Gritton, the soprano soloist in these two works, writes in the disc liner notes “We had just put down our first take of the 'Song and Bacchanal', the first movement of the Choral Symphony when he fell ill and, well, the rest is history.”

Hickox's untimely death in 2008 might have brought an end to this Chandos survey of Holst's orchestral works but here we are already at Volume 3. The successful continuation of this series is in no small part thanks to the commitment of Sir Andrew Davis, a conductor with an unrivalled reputation in English music. On this recording Davis is re-united with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a body of which he is Conductor Laureate having served as the second longest Chief Conductor since Sir Adrian Boult. The superb orchestral playing he elicits from the BBC SO on this SACD is a measure of the rapport that still exists between him and the players.

The first work on this beautifully recorded 5.0 (24-bit / 96kHz) surround SACD is Holst's setting for soprano and orchestra of Walt Whitman's poem 'The Mystic Trumpeter'. Though this is an early work (1904 rev. 1912) – undoubtedly betraying Wagnerian influences – its general neglect seems inexplicable, as even on a first hearing it will surely make an indelible impression on any receptive listener. Holst's enthusiasm for Whitman's poetry is clear in his imaginative setting of each of the poem's four verses . Somewhat surprisingly, it has already appeared on SACD on a 2004 Naxos release as a fill-up to David Lloyd-Jones's recording of 'The Planets' with Claire Rutter as the soprano soloist Holst: The Planets - Lloyd-Jones.

Here Susan Gritton, in absolutely radiant voice, gives an unmatchable account of the piece. Her diction is impeccable – making the words printed in the liner notes hardly necessary – and the balance between her voice and the orchestra is perfect.

Gritton's lovely vocal timbre and exceptionally sensitive singing is also a highlight of the main work on the disc Holst's ambitious 'First Choral Symphony' Op.41 that dates from 1923-4 – Holst did plan to write a Second Choral Symphony, but it never progressed beyond sketches. Here Susan Gritton must share honours with the BBC Symphony Chorus in delivering a stunning account of this work that sets Holst's own eclectic choice of passages from Keats. The orchestral playing could hardly be bettered and special mention must be made of the lovely viola playing of Caroline Harrison in Part 1 of the symphony.

The dynamic range of this recording is astonishing. It captures both the breathtaking pianissimos Davis achieves from his his string players and the shattering organ-capped choral climaxes – the latter reproduced without any sense of strain. The choice of Fairfield Halls, Croydon as the recording venue is an excellent one as it provides a warm and spacious acoustic that both these works require.

I look forward with eager anticipation to the next release in this excellent Holst series.

Copyright © 2013 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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