by Ben Hogwood Picture courtesy ALMA – ESO/NAOJ/NRAO, E/O’Gorman/P.Kervella
A report on the Guardian website today asks why the great red giant star Betelgeuse is glowing so brightly and behaving so strangely. It is a fascinating read, and its remarkable conclusion is a reminder that the light we see from the star is actually 600 years old.
It brought to mind a setting by Gustav Holst of a great poem about the star by Humbert Wolfe. This is a highly unusual song, proceeding such a slow speed that the age of the star is never in doubt. Here it is, sung by tenor Philip Langridge with pianist Steuart Bedford:
Elizabeth Watts (soprano, above), Julius Drake (piano, below)
Gustav Holst Calm is the morn Op. 16 No. 1 (1903-4), Persephone Op. 48 No. 1, Betelgeuse Op. 48 No. 12 (1929), The heart worships (1907), The Floral Bandit Op. 48 No. 6 (1929) Imogen Holst Weathers (1926), 4 Songs from Tottel’s Miscellany: Shall I thus ever long, As lawrell leaves (1944), 10 Appalachian Folk Songs: My dearest dear, The brisk young lover, I must and I will get married (1938, world première performances) Gustav Holst Hymns from the Rig Veda Op. 24 (1907-08)
Wigmore Hall, London, 3 January 2022
reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast. Artist photos (c) Marco Borggreve
The songs of Gustav Holst have largely eluded British performers and concert audiences over the years, and a quick scan over retail sites reveals just the one recording in the last decade. The songs of Imogen Holst, meanwhile, are even more scarce, so it was doubly welcome that this imaginative recital from soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Julius Drake chose to pair works by father and daughter.
Holst senior was a composer capable of finding unusual stillness in music, as the Venus and Neptune movements from his orchestral suite The Planets testify. That talent extended to his songs, and we heard several examples where the composer took his time to set the scene, helped in extremely sympathetic performances from Watts and Drake.
Calm is the morn, a Tennyson setting, found a deep peace tinged with sorrow, though the high notes floated effortlessly by Watts were rather special. These contrasted vividly with the stately Betelgeuse, low in the range while contemplating the end of life – just as Neptune explored the boundaries of the living and the dead at the edge of the solar system. In theory Betelgeuse, with text by Holst’s good friend, the poet Humbert Wolfe, should be more effective with a male voice but Watts found the mysterious depths too. Drake’s tolling chords were the ideal foil, and indeed the pianist proved sensitive to every slight nuance in his scene setting, particularly the slow chorale figure of The heart worships. This was another setting that took its time but was all the more moving for it, with the soprano’s low range well controlled. The Floral Bandit, another Wolfe setting, flitted between quick piano figurations and a restless, high contour from the voice, deliberately uncertain in its direction. Meanwhile Watts’ fretful tones caught the urgency given to Persephone.
Holst was always a keen melodist, a quality that runs through Imogen’s music too. As her father did, she had a keen interest in folk melodies both from this country and further afield, and it was fascinating to compare Watts and Drake’s Anglo-American selection, sourced with help from the Benjamin Britten archive at the Red House, with the songs digitised for performance here.
Imogen’s writing celebrated the open air, its melodies often reaching for the sky. The first song Weathers revelled in its freedom, with a lovely pointed piano part to offset the folksy tune. Drake then enjoyed the trippy syncopations from the piano, combining with a bright soprano line for Shall I thus ever long, Watts keeping clarity in the quick moving words. The slightly elusive As lawrell leaves was next, before the three Appalachian folk settings, collected by Cecil Sharp, exhibited a powerful yearning quality. My Dearest dear kept the folk melody true but turned the melody beautifully. The brisk young lover could almost have been Gustav Holst himself, though Imogen’s piano parts felt more directly connected to the melody. There was an unexpectedly devastating beauty to the simple, sad, final verse, before I must and will get married took a lighter approach.
A rare performance of the complete set of Gustav Holst’s Hymns from the Rig Veda followed. It is remarkable to think these works were published in 1908, for they still sound forward looking today, written as they were after the composer made his own translations of the sacred texts.
Holst’s advanced harmonic thinking was distilled by Drake, while Watts took the longer and more complex melodic phrasing in her stride. The accumulating brightness of Ushas (Dawn) gave way to a stern Varuna I (Sky), where confession of sin was made and ultimately quashed. The sudden movements of Maruts (Stormclouds) came as something of a shock, with the flashing of sword blades, before Indra (God Of Storm and Battle) assumed a regal air with grand chords and a bold melody, strong as an ox under Watts’ delivery. Really impressive power from both in this song. Varuna II explored mysterious and ultimately deathly waters, the listener almost losing a harmonic centre, before Song of the Frogs charmed with its burbling activity. Vac (Speech) gave us another slow and concentrated song, while Creation was even more compelling with its haunting, mostly unaccompanied writing. Finally the wandering piano line for Faith found the soprano ‘rising in silent worship’.
This remarkable set of songs are not only harmonically adventurous but have words that are prescient for today’s climate and particularly the management of the Earth on which we live. Little did Holst know the way in which his work would be thought provoking nearly 115 years on. Watts recognised this, lending a lighter touch to her encore which was Imogen’s arrangement of Henry Carey‘s The Beau’s Lament, brightly sung.
This was a special concert, one of a kind – and a mention should be made for the quality of Wigmore Hall’s camera work, sensitive to both text and performers. Copyright restrictions may prevent them from doing so, but it would be wonderful to see Watts and Drake present this programme in recorded form, for they illuminated aspects of the Holst dynasty rarely glimpsed in the concert hall. Do watch it if you can.
Watch and listen
Sadly the Imogen Holst songs are not yet available in recorded form, but you can the selection from her father Gustav on the Spotify playlist below: