Holst choral SOMMCD279

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
I Vow to Thee, My Country
Joshua Ryan (organ), Richard Horne (tubular and bass bells),
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London

The disc majors on what is “believed to be the first recording to feature all of Gustav Holst’s sacred choral music”. Without detailed cross-checking several lists or catalogues, this is hard to prove. Immediately, I noted the absence of In the Bleak Mid-WinterHoly Ghost Come DownO Valiant HeartsOnward Christian Soldiers, and several carols.

This is not a disc to listen to at a single sitting. I explored it slowly.

Nunc Dimittis – composed at the behest of Richard Terry, Master of Music, at Westminster Cathedral – has been recorded many times. Forgotten for many years, it was published in 1979, in an edition prepared by Imogen Holst. The liner notes suggest that it was the “only part of the Anglican Service for Evening Prayer [Holst] composed”. Although it could be sung in the Church of England, it is a setting of the Roman Catholic Latin text used at the Office of Compline.

The Two Psalms were premiered on 18 July 1920 at an open-air concert at St James’ Park Football Ground, Newcastle upon Tyne. They were written eight years earlier. The liner notes explain in detail the literary and musical sources of the two pieces. Psalm 86, To my humble supplication, is prayerful in intent, with beautiful contributions from the tenor and soprano soloists. There follows a rousing and imaginative setting of Frances Ralph Gray’s paraphrase of Psalm 148, Lord, who hast made us for thine own.

The Short Festival Te Deum really is brief. With words taken from The Book of Common Prayer, Holst whizzes through it in just over four and a half minutes. He devised it for use at Morley College, where he taught. Originally scored for orchestra, it is heard here in Iain Farrington’s arrangement for chorus and organ. It would be effective for “choirs and places where they sing” to perform during Mattins.

Several hymn tunes have been included on this disc. In This World, the Isle of Dreams is an attractively melodic, strophic setting of Robert Herrick’s poem; this somewhat secular hymn was published in Songs of Praise. Gird on thy sword also appeared in that hymnary; it was extracted from the anthem Man Born to ToilOur Blest Redeemer was written for the Public Schools Hymn Book; it is a somewhat dreich tune that would surely not have inspired the scholars. From Glory to Glory Advancing was taken from the Liturgy of St James, translated by C.W. Humphreys, and published in The English Hymnal and several other “popular” hymnbooks; it is a long breathed hymn that lies well for congregational voices.

By Weary Stages the Old World Ages was mined from Holst’s The Coming of Christ, incidental music to a Mystery Play, setting words by John Masefield. The beautiful hymn, Christ Hath a Garden does not appear in the composer’s personal list of works. It was mentioned in his diary for 1928, but Imogen Holst thought it may have been earlier. It seems to have been originally scored for female voices and small orchestra but is heard here with organ accompaniment. The words are by the English Congregational minister, hymn writer, theologian and logician, Isaac Watts.

An early anthem for choir and organ, Not unto us, O Lord sets words from Psalm 115. Interestingly, at the top of the score Holst pencilled: “Motto. Search deep enough, there is music everywhere.” It is a notable achievement for the 19-year-old composer. The liner notes explain that this was probably not performed in Holst’s lifetime; the premiere was likely to have been by the present choir in February 2020.

In a Man born to toil, Holst sets words by the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. It is in two discrete sections. The opening verses are set to a gloomy unison melody that gradually expands into several parts. The second hymnlike section ends with bass bells and organ in a blaze of optimism. Note that the latter tune was heard earlier on this disc as Gird on thy sword. The bass bells are used again to advantageous effect in another Bridge setting, Eternal Father, along with a soprano solo, organ and choir. This powerful but short work counterpoises a dramatic opening, an unaccompanied section leading to soprano solo and “a final distant chorus […] singing radiant alleluias”. I was quite taken by the early Ave Maria, dedicated to the memory of Holst’s mother, a remarkable anthem in eight parts for women’s voices.

The Four Festival Choruses are normally listed as Three, but this recording includes All People that on Earth do Dwell. It probably dates between 1916 and 1919. In Imogen Holst’s Thematic Catalogue (Faber, 1974) this is listed in the appendix as an arrangement for chorus and orchestra. Holst uses the harmonies from the 1621 Ravenscroft Psalter, and successfully interpolates the opening chorus of the final choral of Bach’s Cantata Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV130. This slight mystery of titling is solved by the fact that All People was included in the set of Holst’s Festival Choruses used by the League of Arts for National and Civic Ceremony – making up the four!

The other pieces are A Festival Chime and Turn Back, O Man setting words by Clifford Bax, and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. The latter are heard in Iain Farrington’s new choir and organ arrangements.

Andrew Neill compiled the liner notes in part from a commentary by Chris Cope, Chairman of The Holst Society. They provide all the information needed to contextualise and enjoy this music. I would have liked the “H” catalogue numbers to have been given in the notes and on the track listing. They are provided in the song texts, which have been conveniently included. Dates in the track listing would have been helpful. There are brief details about the choir and the soloists. The cover is a 1910 painting by Millicent Lisle Woodforde, which may be on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The album is sponsored by The Holst Society.

The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea under their director William Vann give an ideal performance. The organist, Joshua Ryan makes a significant contribution on the splendid J.W. Walker instrument in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square. And let us not forget the tubular/bass bell player Richard Horne, in A Festival Chime and other items, who certainly adds to the celebrations.

This significant release of Holst’s music explores several byways which do not seem to be in the public purview. That said, nothing can be more popular than the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country. Whether known as Princess Diana’s favourite or as the “big tune” from Jupiter (The Planets), it will always define Holst for many listeners.

John France

Previous review: Nick Barnard (November 2022)

Nunc Dimittis, H127 (1915)
Gird on Thy Sword, H168 (Chilswell) (1931)
Two Psalms, H117 (1912)
Psalm 86: To My Humble Supplication
Psalm 148: Lord, Who Hast Made Us for Thine Own
In This World, the Isle of Dreams, H161 (Brookend) (c.1925)
Not Unto Us, O Lord, H22 (1893-1896)
Our Blest Redeemer (not catalogued) (Essex) (1919)
Short Festival Te Deum, H145 (1919)
From Glory to Glory Advancing, H73 (Sheen) (1904-1905)
Man Born to Toil, H168 (1927)
Eternal Father, H169 (1927)
By Weary Stages the Old World Ages, from The Coming of Christ, H170 (Hill Crest) (1927)
Christ Hath a Garden, H167 (c.1928)
Ave Maria, H49 (1901)
I Vow to Thee, My Country, H148 (pub.1921)
Four Festival Choruses, H134 (1916-1919)
A Festival Chime
All People That on Earth do Dwell
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Turn Back, O Man

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