HOLST Symphony in F, “The Cotswolds.” Walt Whitman Overture. A Hampshire Suite (orch. G. Jacob). The Perfect Fool. Scherzo ● Douglas Bostock, cond; Munich SO ● SCANDINAVIAN CLASSICS 220559-205 (65:04)
This is a reissue of a CD originally released on Classico and was reviewed with somewhat muted enthusiasm by Peter Rabinowitz in 23:6.
Gustav Holst was a most unusual composer, with several different creative personalities that don’t share much in common. His oddness is only partly explained by the particularly uneven representation of his work in the repertoire. A member of the same generation as Vaughan Williams and so many other English composers known disparagingly as “the cowpat school,” which might be described more objectively as those composers who found inspiration in the folk music of England and its environs and couched it in a pastoral language with roots in Impressionism. And, yes, Holst certainly falls into that group by dint of a number of works that share those attributes. But his best-known work, The Planets (1914-16)—certainly one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century—reveals that side of his creative personality only in the “trio” melody from the “Jupiter” movement. Perhaps the popularity of this work—indeed, its over-familiarity—has led to a somewhat patronizing attitude toward it, and with it a failure to acknowledge the novelty of conception, original stylistic juxtapositions, and expressive breadth it displays with great eloquence, not to mention its extraordinarily imaginative orchestration. In fact, aside from that Elgarian tune in “Jupiter,” there is very little about the work that links it to a national “school” or to the music of other composers (although some claim to hear reminiscences that elude me), and that, along with a certain visionary sense of impersonal detachment, make his music quite difficult to characterize. Aside from A Hampshire Suite, that is the case with much of the remaining music on this disc, although its level of interest must be said to be uneven. Missing from this program is the composer’s fascination with Oriental literature and philosophy—another element of his heterogeneous stylistic range.
Perhaps the least interesting piece is the aforementioned A Hampshire Suite, as it is merely an orchestral arrangement done by Gordon Jacob of Holst’s classic Second Suite in F for wind band. Certainly delightful in its own right, it can readily be grouped with similar pieces by Vaughan Williams, not to mention Gordon Jacob himself, along with the many other English composers who found inspiration in their indigenous folk music.
Of interest largely to those who enjoy and are familiar with only Holst’s best-known works are two pieces dating from 1899-1900, when the composer had yet to find his own voice: the Walt Whitman Overture and the ambitious four-movement Symphony in F, subtitled “The Cotswolds,” after the beautiful English hills. The Overture is remarkable for its stylistic anonymity, as well as for the absence of any suggestion of the spirit of Walt Whitman. The language might be described as “international” in style, like that of so many pre-Elgar English composers, such as Sir Arthur Sullivan (Holst was 17 years younger than Elgar), with suggestions of Wagner (both early and late), resulting in moments of both bombast and banality.
The Symphony in F is cut from much the same cloth, although looming far above the rest of it is the slow movement—more than a third of the work’s duration—subtitled “In Memoriam William Morris,” dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite artist who had died just three years earlier. This elegy is quite beautifully moving, almost Tchaikovskian in its mournfulness, and more complex harmonically than the rest of the work. Yet despite the evident sincerity of its feeling, there are numerous indications of immaturity. The three other movements are surprisingly ordinary, with some suggestions of Dvořák, and even Raff—but with nowhere near the musical or emotional complexity of what, say, Elgar was writing at the time.
But exemplifying Holst’s mature musical personality is the ballet suite drawn from The Perfect Fool, variously described as an opera and as incidental music, dating from 1918. This is probably the composer’s best-known music, after The Planets, which the music frequently calls to mind,and the pieces based on English folksong. With extraordinarily brilliant orchestration, it is a marvelously imaginative and individualistic work—captivating yet strangely impersonal in its exuberance. Perusing the Fanfare archive to see how my colleagues have characterized this music, I discovered that, while the piece appears on many recordings, its character and style is not really addressed by any of the reviewers, confirming my observation about the elusiveness of this quite delightful music.
But the most interesting music of all is the Scherzo, apparently the last music composed by Holst, shortly before his untimely death in 1934 at age 60. This six-minute morsel leads one to deeply regret that he did not live to complete the symphony for which this movement was intended. The brief, unsigned liner notes say nothing about this piece, but it is strangely jaunty, in an off-center sort of way that does not identify it with any national school. Most notable is its highly flexible and inventive treatment of rhythm, which accounts for its off-center effect.
Douglas Bostock is an English conductor whose career has mostly been located in Germany. The performances here are generally quite fine, although I found some of the tempos in the Cotswolds Symphony to be a little on the sluggish side.
In conclusion, let me say that I encourage those listeners who appreciate The Planets as more than a mere audio spectacular to look more deeply into Holst’s output. I think that they will discover a highly intriguing creative voice.