Holst Choral Ballets
Devotees will doubtless already be familiar with Imogen Holst’s attractive, purely orchestral reworkings of material from her father’s two choral ballets, The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year (available in sprightly performances on two separate Lyrita compilations, 4/93 and 6/93 respectively). Now Hyperion give us the opportunity to assess both works in their original entirety.
In his exemplary accompanying notes, Raymond Head tells us that the term ‘choral ballet’ was first applied to Sir Granville Bantock’s 1914 opus, The Great God Pan, and that it “may well have been derived from the music of Thomas Morley and Thomas Weelkes who wrote ‘balletts’ and madrigals which were sung and danced”. In the years following the First World War there was a revival of interest in the folk-dance movement (pioneered by Holst’s friend, Cecil Sharp) which led to a number of open-air stagings featuring morris and maypole dancers; both The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year were directly inspired by such entertainments.
The Golden Goose dates from 1926 and was first performed by pupils from Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith (Holst taught music at both establishments). Based on the Grimm fairy-tale about the princess who was never able to laugh, it is an immensely charming, tuneful collection, orchestrated with much wit and delicacy. Not surprisingly, it proved very popular at the time, whereas its successor from 1927, The Morning of the Year (the BBC Music Department’s first ever commission), fared less well. The score bears a dedication to the English Folk Dance Society and its scenario is described as “a representation of the mating ordained by Nature to happen in the spring of the year”. Unlike The Golden Goose, it was conceived for professional forces and is altogether more adventurous in its technical and harmonic scope. Unfortunately, apart from one or two numbers (the beautiful “Dance of the Maidens”, for example), it rather lacks the freshness of invention of its endearing predecessor.
The ‘Old English Ballad’, King Estmere is a much earlier work. It dates from 1903 and draws upon a story found in Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (a volume published in 1765 and much revered by Cecil Sharp). By the side of Holst’s tone-poem, Indra (completed the same year), King Estmere wears less of an overtly Wagnerian demeanour, and the red-blooded vigour and melodic directness of the writing ensure the finished article communicates with a touching sincerity. Certainly, its hearty, declamatory style must make it a thoroughly enjoyable ‘sing’.
Performances are lively and capable, though there are occasions where greater choral bite (and clarity of diction) would not have gone amiss. As usual from this particular company, presentation is absolutely first-class, and the recording is ripe and realistic to match (not surprisingly, with that superb sound engineer Tryggvi Tryggvason at the helm). In sum, a very useful release. Now, how about a complete account of The Perfect Fool?'