Classical CD Reviews

IMOGEN HOLST: Mass in a; A Hymn to Christ; Three Psalms; Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow; Hello my fancy, whither wilt thou go?; BRITTEN (orch. by Imogen Holst): Rejoice in the Lamb – Harmonia mundi

An absolutely mandatory release by a woman quite underrated in her abilities.

Published on November 7, 2012

IMOGEN HOLST: Mass in a; A Hymn to Christ; Three Psalms; Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow; Hello my fancy, whither wilt thou go?; BRITTEN (orch. by Imogen Holst): Rejoice in the Lamb – Harmonia mundi

IMOGEN HOLST: Mass in a; A Hymn to Christ; Three Psalms; Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow; Hello my fancy, whither wilt thou go?; BRITTEN (orch. by Imogen Holst): Rejoice in the Lamb – Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/ The Dmitri Ensemble/ Tonya Houghton, harp/ Cressida Sharp, sop./ Robert Cross, countertenor/ Stefan Kennedy, tenor/ Dominic Sedgwick, bass/ Graham Ross – Harmonia mundi HMU 907576, 72:35 *****:

Imogen Holst (1907-84) is the only daughter of composer Gustav Holst, and a friend and confidant of composer Benjamin Britten, with whom she collaborated for many years, becoming the director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1956-77 after having first started there in 1952. She initially thought of a career as a concert pianist but was inhibited from that desire when she contracted phlebitis in her right arm. She was a musicologist, a theorist, music editor, and off and on composer and arranger for many years. Based on the pieces found here, she is quite a fine one.

In fact, if I had heard this music blind I would never have guessed who wrote it. It is tonal of course, though also heavily relying on modalism in many cases, wonderfully descriptive, and in at least one piece, quite complex. This was no hobby with the woman—she knew what she was doing, did it very well, and would have composed more had her life circumstances allowed it. As it is we should be very grateful for what we have, and this release, with the fine instrumental Dmitri Ensemble and the lovely Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, gives us superb performances in attractive sound.

The Mass in A Minor was an early work written under the supervision of Vaughan Williams for a paperwork class of his. It is inundated with modal melodies not at all inappropriate for such a piece, and shows a remarkable talent blossoming at an early age.  A Hymn to Christ and the Three Psalms both demonstrate intense progress in her art as the former, a setting of John Donne’s In what torn ship soever I embark captures the meaning of the words in a largely homophonic manner while the latter (with strings as well as chorus) uses subtle rhythms and carefully hidden harmonies to project a variety of choral textures.

The best piece on this album is Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow for voices on six poems by John Keats. The two-soprano and alto scoring along with harp makes for a lot of clever and really beautiful turns of phrase and word painting where the harp is used in an integral manner to help shape the texts. Hello my fancy, whither wilt thou go? Is the major choral work of her later years, set to texts of seventeenth century Scottish poet William Cleland, where the poet’s imagination sends him high to be like an insect or a bird skimming the air and diving among the mountains.

In 1952 Britten asked her to orchestrate his Rejoice in the Lamb for the Aldeburgh Festival. Her imaginative scoring transformed the original organ to strings, woodwinds, and percussion instruments like castanets, woodblock, tambourine, and timpani. The ten fragments of Jubilate Agno from eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart which comprise the piece add brilliance and color to Britten’s already colorful cantata.

This is a not-to-be-missed release!

—Steven Ritter




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