Gustav Holst | Recordings of Holst's Music

Gustav Holst: Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, etc.

Performers include:
Osian Ellis, harp
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal College of Music Chamber Choir
Sir David Willcocks, conductor

Notes: © 1985 Unicorn-Kanchana Records Ltd. Recorded in association with G & I Holst Ltd and with financial assistance from the Holst Foundation. Musical Advisers: Rosamund Strode and Colin Matthews. Recording Producer: Christopher Palmer. Recording Engineer: Bob Auger. Recording Location: All Saints Church, 4th and 5th December 1984.

Label and Sku: Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD)9046

Track Listing

  1. Hymn to Dionysus
  2. Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Second Group:
    To Varuna (God of the Waters)
    To Agni (God of Fire)
    Funeral Chant
  3. Choral Hymns from the Rig Vega. First Group:
    Battle Hymn
    To the Unknown God
  4. Choral Hymns from the Rig Vega. Third Group:
    Hymn to the Dawn
    Hymn to the Waters
    Hymn to Vena (Sun rising through the mist)
    Hymn of the Travellers
  5. Choral Hymns from the Rig Vega. Fourth Group:
    Hymn to Soma (The juice of a herb)
    Hymn to Manas (The spirit of a dying man)
  6. Two Eastern Pictures:
    Spring
    Summer

Review

This CD was no doubt produced in part due to the efforts of Holst's daughter, Imogen, however she did not live to see it released. It is a shame, because the set of recordings on this disc are truly some of the few gems out there in a market saturated by recordings (though some quite good) of The Planets. Sir David Willcocks conducts the RCM Chamber Choir and RPO in a survey of obscure works by Holst composed during the early 1910s, led by the wonderful piece Hymn to Dionysus (1913).

There was a such a sweetness in Holst's compositions during this time, and the opening of the piece is beautifully performed; the clarinet solo rising over the flute and strings ostinato give way to a sublime unison choir singing "Oh, blessèd he in all wise." The texture grows until the first climax at "Up, O Bacchae," and the choir handles this well, but sometimes the diction isn't quite crisp enough, and in these more aggressive areas in the music, the female choir gets easily overpowered by the orchestra. It's at the soft delicate passages where the ensembles show their amazing control: the crisp celeste and the woodwinds shine throughout the recording and the vibrancy of the finale climax overs amazing contrast to the opening of the second group of Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda.

One of the peculiarities of this CD is that although all four groups of Rig Veda hymns are represented, not all of the hymns within each group were recorded. I'm not quite sure why this was the case, there is enough room on the CD to have the remaining ones performed. As well, I assume that the ordering of the selections was done for the sake of programming continuity (the second group appears before the first on the CD), but it is still a bit confusing. Nevertheless, the quality of the performances recorded are very good. There are some slight intonation problems in the second group, and the female choir does once again get overpowered in "To Agni" by the orchestra. But the choir shimmers in passages like the opening of the "Funeral Chant."

The first group offers us the first (and only) taste of the power of the full choir on this CD. The problems with balance are not apparent in the "Battle Hymn" yet the sublime nature of the quieter moments such as in "To the Unknown God" are still well executed. The orchestra also does very well in setting the proper mood with the descending bass ostinato: first menacing then growing with power and darker in mood. When the choir emerges from this tormented ostinato with a subito piano "Who is He?" it is particularly striking.

I believe the third group of the Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda to be some of the most beautiful pieces for female choir ever written. They are exquisitely performed on this CD, with Osian Ellis on harp and the female choir using the right voice; it's not too heavy with vibrato or too weak and airy. The fourth group for male choir is magical, with the "Hymn to Manas" being the standout of the two featured. The CD ends with the upbeat Two Eastern Pictures for female choir and harp.

If there was ever a need to validate the beauty of Holst's music from this period, this recording could certainly serve the purpose. Willcocks has taken us on a wonderful voyage and the choir and orchestra perform very well. I'm unsure as to whether the recording is still in print, so rummage through those used CD bins or maybe we can hope for a re-issue.

Reviewed by Kenric.