Notes and Editorial Reviews
Imogen Holst (1907-1984), the daughter of Gustav Holst, has long deserved recognition for her significant body of compositions, written throughout her life. After working as Benjamin Britten’s amanuensis (1952-1964), she returned to her own composing. Graham Ross conducts the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the instrumentalists of The Dmitri Ensemble in these world première recordings of a selection of Holst’s choral works ranging from 1927 to 1972, three of which have not been heard since their first performance, together with the first recording of her imaginative and skillful orchestration of Benjamin Britten’s Festival Cantata 'Rejoice in the Lamb', made at Britten’s own request.
Since the founding of a
mixed voice choir in 1971, the Choir of Clare College has gained an international reputation as one of the leading university choral groups in the world. In 2000 it became the first Oxbridge mixed voice choir to perform at the BBC Proms, singing Bach’s 'St John Passion'. The choir has collaborated with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in performances of Handel’s 'Jephtha' under the direction of René Jacobs, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Elgar’s 'The Dream of Gerontius' under Edward Gardner, and with the Israel Camerata in Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium. Other collaborations have included the Academy of Ancient Music, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Manchester Camerata and the Schubert Ensemble.
In addition to live performances, the choir has produced an impressive catalogue of recordings. Recent releases include Sacred Choral Music, a recording of music by Vaughan Williams, which was hailed as ‘exceptional’ by BBC Music Magazine and acclaimed for its ‘sweeping energy and rich detail’ by Classic FM.
Since its founding in 2004, The Dmitri Ensemble has championed many new and lesser-familiar works both in concert performance and with an increasingly diverse discography. Based around the central core of a string ensemble, the Ensemble has made acclaimed recordings of works by James MacMillan (5-star reviews from Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine, both Editor’s Choice), Giles Swayne (double 5-star review from BBC Music Magazine) and Judith Bingham, and a recording of previously unrecorded works by Vaughan Williams in collaboration with the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. This recording of works by Imogen Holst marks the Ensemble’s first recording on the harmonia mundi label.
R E V I E W:
Imogen Holst’s fastidiously crafted and enjoyable choral music in excellent performances
Imogen Holst, the daughter and biographer of Gustav Holst, was, in her own right, an important figure in British musical life for several decades in the twentieth century. She is remembered, inter alia, as the founder of The Purcell Consort of Voices, as an assistant to Benjamin Britten and as an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival (1956-1977). However, her own musical compositions have received limited attention. Reviewing a disc devoted to her chamber music for strings in 2009, Rob Barnett expressed the hope that there would be more recordings of her music and, thanks to Graham Ross and the estimable Clare College choir, here is a disc of her vocal music.
She was a pupil of Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music and, as Christopher Tinker relates in his useful booklet note, her Mass in A minor was “written under the guidance” of RVW. I’m sure that anyone who responds to RVW’s Mass in G minor will approve of Imogen Holst’s Mass setting for unaccompanied choir. It’s no mere clone of the Vaughan Williams work, however, and the scale isn’t quite as ambitious. The modal Kyrie is lovely and the Credo displays great confidence in handling the choral medium. The tranquil, prayerful setting of the Agnus Dei is rightly singled out for special mention in the notes. I got the feeling that there were no wasted notes in this concise setting; I hope this fine recording will lead to some of our cathedral choirs taking it into their repertoire.
Everything in this programme appears on disc for the first time so all the music was new to me with the exception of the Britten. A Hymne to Christ is a homophonic setting of words by John Donne. It’s a compact setting – there are no word repetitions – and perhaps the music is a trifle understated given the rich imagery of Donne’s words. Nonetheless I was impressed by the piece. There’s rather more word painting in Three Psalms, a composition for SATB choir and strings. The writing here is a bit more dissonant and, as befits the tone of the psalms in question – Psalms 80, 56 and 91 – there’s more drama in the music than we have heard hitherto. Christopher Tinker describes the string writing as “delicate”. I’m not quite sure I’d choose that word but the accompaniment is fairly restrained; the spotlight is thrown on the singers and the words they are putting across.
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow was written at Britten’s request for the 1951 Aldeburgh Festival. Holst set some poems by John Keats for female voices (SSA) with harp accompaniment – apparently, this was the only time she wrote for the instrument. You can’t help wondering if the scoring was a nod towards Britten’s own A Ceremony of Carols, though it’s not as adventurous a work, especially as regards the use of the harp; the accompaniment is much less flamboyant than in Britten’s piece. The scoring results in textures that are delightfully crisp and clear and the settings are confident and charming. My attention was caught particularly by the rather wintry ‘O sorrow’ and by the delicate and soothing ‘Lullaby’.
Hallo my fancy, wither wilt thou go? was written to mark the tenth anniversary of The Purcell Consort of Voices. The piece, which is for unaccompanied SATB choir, contains music that is much the most complex and ambitious on the disc. The text, a poem by the Scot, William Cleland (?1661-1689) is ambitious too and Holst’s music seems to me to be as imaginative as the words she set. It’s a difficult piece to perform, I’m sure, but like everything else in this programme, the Clare College singers deliver a splendidly assured performance.
Imogen Holst orchestrated Rejoice in the Lamb at Britten’s specific request for the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. I suppose I should come clean and say that this piece has never really appealed to me; for one thing, Christopher Smart’s often-eccentric words are an obstacle. The orchestral scoring is a success, I think, showing the work in a fresh light without drawing attention to itself excessively. The arrangement adds new colours and, thereby, new perspectives. I especially enjoyed the substantial clarinet part in ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’, which is highly effective. The four solos are sung by members of the choir and all do well.
I think this may be the first recording that Graham Ross has made with the Clare College choir since succeeding Tim Brown as Director of Music and it’s good that he’s combined the choir with his Dmitri Ensemble. Both the singing and playing on this disc are extremely fine and the performances are presented in excellent sound. The presentation is lavish, with a beautifully produced booklet containing several very good photographs of Imogen Holst. The only slight quibble I’d raise is to question the value of including illustrations of a couple of pages of her musical manuscripts but reproduced in such small images that one can’t really see them very clearly.
It’s very pleasing that Imogen Holst’s fastidiously crafted and enjoyable choral music has been committed to disc and it’s hard to imagine that it could have received better advocacy.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Mass in A minor by Imogen Holst
Cambridge Clare College Choir,
A Hymne to Christ by Imogen Holst
Cambridge Clare College Choir,
Psalms (3) by Imogen Holst
Cambridge Clare College Choir,
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 by Benjamin Britten
Cambridge Clare College Choir,
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1943; England
Mass in A Minor: I. Kyrie
Mass in A Minor: II. Gloria
Mass in A Minor: III. Credo
Mass in A Minor: IV. Sanctus - Benedictus
Mass in A Minor: V. Agnus Dei
Three Psalms: I. Psalm 80, Give ear, O shepherd of Israel
Three Psalms: II. Psalm 56, Be merciful unto me, O God
Three Psalms: III. Psalm 91, He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow: I. Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow: II. Teignmouth
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow: III. Over the Hill and over the Dale
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow: IV. O sorrow
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow: V. Lullaby
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow: VI. Shed no tear
Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go?
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): I. Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): II. For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): III. For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): IV. For the flowers are great blessings
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): V. For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): VI. For H is a spirit and therefore he is God
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): VII. For the instruments are by their rhimes
Rejoice in the Lamb (Festival Cantata): VIII. Hallelujah from the heart of God
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