Holst Choral Works
Here is a real discovery. In her book on her father's music, Imogen Holst dismissed The Cloud Messenger as ''a dismal failure'' and in his recent study of the composer Michael Short is not much more enthusiastic. Yet probably neither author heard the work in performance. Holst himself regarded it as important and was deeply despondent when its first performance in 1913 was a failure. Since then it has hardly been heard and this recording is almost certainly the first fully professional performance for decades.
So once again a fatal initial verdict has kept fine music from listeners for the best part of a century. The Cloud Messenger proves to be a lengthy (45 minutes) and large-scale work of considerable imaginative power, a setting of a Sanskrit text translated by Holst. Its scope makes the appearance of The Planets as his next work much less surprising. There are one or two weak passages, as there are in Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, but very many more of striking beauty, superbly written for the choir and imaginatively scored. Some episodes are prophetic of The Hymn of Jesus, which is also included on this disc. Imogen Holst seems to have disapproved of the romantic strain in some of Holst's pre-1914 works, deriding them as ''Wagnerian''. I think the combination of warmth and ascetic ecstasy is what gives Holst his originality, and I hope that Richard Hickox's enterprise in unearthing this superb work will be rewarded by its restoration to its rightful place. Performance and recording alike are first-rate, with Della Jones a dramatic soloist in the middle section.
There has never been any question about the mastery of The Hymn of Jesus. Perhaps Boult's restrained approach (coupled with The Dream of Gerontius on a two-disc set from Decca) comes nearer to what Holst intended, but there is certainly room for Hickox's more expansive interpretation. In any case, though, it's The Cloud Messenger that makes this disc unmissable for devotees of British music—and, I hope, by others. Dismal failure, my foot!'