On record – Holst: Christmas Music (Godwine Choir) (EM Records)

In the Bleak Midwinter H71 (1904)
Four Old English Carols H82 (1907)
Two Carols H91 (1907/16)
Christmas Day H109 (1910)a
Lullay my Liking H129 (1916)
This Have I Done for My True Love H128 (1916)
Of One that is so Fair and Bright H130 (1916)
Bring us in Good Ale H131 (1916)
Three Carols H133 (1916/17)a
A Dream of Christmas H139 (1917)a
Wassail Song H182 (c1931)
Scherzo H192 (1933, arr. Brasier)**
Four Organ Voluntaries HApp8-11 (1890/1, transc. John Wright)*

*John Wright (organ); **Richard Brasier, **Tom Bell (organ duet); Godwine Choir / Alex Davon Wetton, Edward Hughes with a Douglas Tang (organ); b Charlotte Evans (oboe); c Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (cello)

EM Records EMR CD0062 [82’42”]

Producer / Engineer Myles Eastwood

Recorded 13 & 14 July 2019 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London; **22 August 2019 at Hereford Cathedral

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

EM Records continues its enterprising release schedule with this anthology of seemingly all Holst’s choral music written for or with Christmas in mind, along with first recorded outings of original pieces plus a transcription for organ that in themselves explain this album’s title.

What’s the music like?

As incrementally wide-ranging as might be expected from a composer whose never wore his distinctive personality on his sleeve. Earliest of the choral works is also the most famous – a setting of In the Bleak Midwinter that will be heard the Christian world over these next few weeks (no comment as to a preference between this and Harold Darke’s setting!). Intricately wrought in rhythm and texture, the Four Old English Carols exude a luminously Medieval atmosphere, as also the Two Carols with their modally evocative harmony. Most ambitious among these earlier items, Christmas Day alternates before superimposing its four carols in this heady and engaging medley – of which Holst’s subsequently dismissive view says more about his constantly changing stylistic preoccupations than any intrinsic failing of this work.

Almost all the latter choral pieces date from around the time of Holst’s move to Thaxted and the festival he initiated there. The call-and-response of Lullay my Liking retains its enduring charm, but how surprising I Saw Three Ships has not previously been recorded, its vivacity as appealing as the purposefulness of Personent hodie or gaiety of Masters in this Hall. Holst’s view that Of One that is so Fair and Bright ‘‘should be done simply like a good village choir’’ might give pause for thought, its rhythmic flow as exacting as the cumulative vocal weave of This Have I Done for My True Love or the accelerating part-writing of Bring us in Good Ale. There is an almost impressionistic allure to the little-known A Dream of Christmas, with the Wassail Song a reminder of the ribald element that often surfaces in this composer’s music.

Even Holst’s admirers are likely unfamiliar with his output for solo organ, if only because the four voluntaries in question have gone unheard since the teenage composer tried them out in his Cheltenham schooldays. Modest in scope, the first three are an intriguing parallel to what his contemporary Ives was coming up with across the Atlantic – thus the resolute March, the whimsical Allegretto Pastorale and the capering Postlude. Much more ambitious, the Funeral March is an animated processional whose opulent climaxes and quirky registrations admit of more personal traits. From Alpha to Omega – the Scherzo being the only movement realized of the symphony upon which Holst was working at his death, arranged here for organ duet by Richard Brasier such that its contrapuntal dexterity and fluid evolution are acutely conveyed.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. Holst was a master of many guises; his Christmas output is unfailingly evocative for all its technical demands. It helps that performances by the London-based Godwine Choir are so attentive to this music’s spirit, as are Brasier and Tom Bell in the Scherzo transcription.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The Hampstead and Hereford venues are ideal acoustics, and the booklet note includes an overview of choral items by Chris Cope – Chairman of the Holst Society, whose extensive recording programme will result in much unfamiliar music being brought to light.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the EM Records website, where you can hear clips from the recording and also purchase.

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