HOLST: Beni Mora / Somerset Rhapsody / Hammersmith
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Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Invocation for Cello and Orchestra
Looking back over the twentieth centuryone might wonder how Gustav Holst came to be such a seminal figure in Britishmusic on the basis of so few familiar works. Today's casual concert-goer orrecord-buyer would be challenged to name three or four of his compositions. Infact he wrote several hundred in practically every genre. Singers will knowpart-songs and wind-players the military-band suites, but his modern reputationrests on The Planets, The Hymn of Jesus, and perhaps the ballet music toThe Perfect Fool. These few pieces not only underpin Holst's presentposition but were all written in the surprisingly short period when hereceived, or in his view endured, popular approval. The Planets wasfirst performed in 1918, The Hymn of Jesus in 1920 and The PerfectFool in 1922. Outside this period of public favour things were different:hitherto he was young, up and coming, needing to feed himself, find his ownvoice and make it heard; afterwards, being the personality he was, the price offorging ahead was to leave the public and the musical establishment behind.
This caused Holst no heartache at all for there was little chance that criticalendorsement would ever compromise his artistic tenets.
This recording neatly covers inchronological order these outer two periods (three pieces from each of them),revealing some clues as to why Holst was so central to English music of the earlytwentieth century. In this one man's music can be traced all those musicalcurrents which fed and energised the musical renaissance in England at thattime. A man who never stood still, who was driven to experiment, who needed nocheering from the touchline, a man with his mind open to the musical revolutionthat was under way in Europe but in whose ears still rang the modal inflexionsof folk-song, the rhythmic freedom of plainsong and the exhilaratingcounterpoint of the Tudor age.
The Somerset Rhapsody (1906-7) waswritten at the suggestion of the great folk-song collector Cecil Sharp and wasHolst's first real critical success. Had he then decided to climb aboard theEnglish pastoralists' hay-wagon he might well have shared the nowwell-composted reputation of that school, but already there were signs of whereHolst would be going: those repeated scalic bass lines, the risingtrumpet-calls and his love affair with contrapuntal ingenuities. Yet there arebackward glances to what his daughter Imogen calls his 'early horrors'; somerather trite thematic development and residual patches of overripe Wagnerianharmony. He quotes four different songs: his own acknowledged favourite the SheepShearing Song, High Germany, The True Lover's Farewell and The Cuckoo, allpresented in full at least once but overlaying each other to varying degrees ina tight musical structure.
Beni Mora (1909-10) or Oriental Suite could, like the Somerset Rhapsody, conveyin its title the suggestion of diversionary salon music. Holst does to someextent indulge the listener in some picture-postcard scene painting but hecould never be content with just that. The premiere drew some hisses as theaudience realised that Holst was not presenting his holiday snapshots in quitethe way that prevailing musical conventions required. The First Dance isthe most conformist, complete with the nasal sound of the cor anglais,'oriental' intervals and impassioned arabesques not dissimilar to Borodin. Inthe Second Dance carefully selected instrumental groups; timpani,bassoons, low flutes and upper strings, create a scene of stillness, mysteryand some menace. The finale, subtitled In the Street of the Ouled Na?»ls, revealssomething of the emerging Holst.
Scenting a musical challenge, he introducesa short evocative riff in the low flute which he had apparently heard anAlgerian native instrumentalist intone for 21/2 hours. Holst repeats it a mere163 times, stretching his technique and harmonic ingenuity to the limits, whilecreating a hypnotic atmosphere of torrid, highly charged night air vibrating asthe sounds of an approaching Arab procession mingle with those from the dancehalls and cafes lining the street.
Invocation for Cello and Orchestra (1911)also evokes a nocturnal atmosphere, even to the extent of having as an originaltitle A Song of the Evening. It too looks forward and backward. Romanticharmonies still linger, but the free rhythm of the introduction, and thecrystalline woodwind colours pre-echo Venus from The Planets, awork that would occupy much of the next few years. After a few earlyperformances Invocation became lost amongst Holst's papers where itremained for some sixty years with the encouragement of his daughter Imogen,who regarded it as 'not of any value in itself'.
After the next few years, during whichthe public and the critical establishment fell into step with him, Holst strodeon ahead. The Fugal Overture (1923), first used as an overture to theopera The Perfect Fool, shows further evidence of his lifelong musicalpreoccupations. Contrapuntal ingenuity and asymmetric rhythms are set in aconcise, balanced yet totally original formal structures. The scoringdemonstrates an economical and individualistic use of the orchestral palette.
Its initial reception was mixed; some praising its good humour but othersominously regretting Holst's lapse into asceticism and perverse exercises inthe contrapuntal style.
The even colder reception given to EgdonHeath (1927) failed to perturb Holst who, for the rest of his life,considered it his best work. Above the score is a quotation from The Returnof the Native by the work's dedicatee Thomas Hardy; 'A place perfectlyaccordant with man's nature - neither ghastly, hateful nor ugly; neithercommonplace, unmeaning nor tame; but like man, slighted and enduring; andwithal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony'. Holstwas obviously fascinated by the challenge of recreating such an elusive yetfinely drawn atmosphere and there may be an uncharacteristic note ofself-justification in his anxiety that this quotation should always be in thework's programme notes.
Hammersmith (1930)was commissioned by the BBC for their Wireless Military Band and is played herein the wind-band instrumentation. Holst then made an orchestral version for itsfirst performance, sharing the programme with the London premiere of Walton's Belshazzar'sFeast. This unlucky coincidence may account for its subsequent obscurity asan orchestral work, Holst lived and worked for much of his life in West Londonand this musical tribute to the area contrasts the inexorable slow progress ofthe Thames with energetic bustle of the then energetic street-life on itsbanks.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Formed in 1891 as the Scottish Orchestra,in 1951 the ensemble, now full-time, took the name of the Scottish NationalOrchestra, later assuming the title Royal, a recognition of its importance inthe musical life of Scotland. Distinguished conductors who have worked with theorchestra include Karl Rankl, Hans Swarowsky, Walter Susskind, Bryden Thomsonand Sir Alexander Gibson, the last named becoming the first Scottish-bornprincipal conductor in 1959. Neeme Jarvi, who was conductor from 1984 to 1988is now Conductor Laureate and Walter Weller was