I. HOLST: Phantasy Quartet (1928). Duo for Viola and Piano (1968). String
Trio No. 1 (1944). The Fall of the Leaf (1962). Sonata for Violin and Cello
(1930). String Quintet (1982).
Court Lane Music
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The family firm. Like many of his admirers, I first got more deeply into
the music of Gustav Holst through the pioneering study by his daughter
Imogen. Although her own recordings of her father's music contradicted
her writings, the distortions she perpetrated one can put down to the
temper of the times -- when innovation and surprise became cardinal
virtues. She painted her father as a radical progressive, probably to
protect his reputation from the brickbats thrown Vaughan Williams's
way, and played
down his deep roots in the English folk-song and choral tradition. She
became the keeper of her father's flame at a decisive time.
However, she was much more than that. She conducted with distinction.
She served as Britten's assistant at Aldeburgh. She taught. She wrote
on a number of musical topics. She also composed.
Her catalogue turned out rather slender, for several reasons. First,
her decision to champion both her father's music and later Britten's
at least forty years of her time. Second, like her father, she had a
horror of repeating herself. Third, for a while she simply lost interest
resuming writing again only toward the end of her life, when she retired
from Aldeburgh. I don't know for sure, but I speculate that, like her
father, she needed to earn a living, which again cut into her time.
Gustav trained his daughter as a musician, and he did well. One can spot
certain characteristics their work shares: notably, elegance, intelligence,
and concentration. An intensity simmers beneath a lid of soft dynamics
and very few notes. They also have a taste for integrating radical experiment
with tradition. For Gustav, this came out in his fitting polytonality
into a tonal concept. He would write in three different keys at once,
it would sound "normal," mainly because his sense of harmony
and his mastery of counterpoint were so strong that listener got not
clashes of keys (like the music of Milhaud), but kaleidoscopic shifts
centers. Imogen, on the other hand, found in the clash of keys -- not
a coloring, as in Milhaud -- but a dramatic principle which shapes many
her scores. It reminds me a lot of Nielsen's rhetorical use of key-centers.
An extremely interesting composer in her own right, she never pushed
her music. The CD presents the recording premiere of every work on the
Her music does lack the instantly-recognizable individuality of her father's.
In a sense, she seems content to follow contemporary models, combined
with her taste for innovation. Thus, her Cobbett prizewinning Phantasy
(1928) exemplifies British Pastoralism, even though it's far more tightly
written than most other such scores. A fantastic technique and thorough
knowledge of the instruments -- some of it, at least, probably gained
through practical playing experience -- informs the 1930 Sonata for Violin
Cello. In fact, from that standpoint, I think it outshines the Ravel
sonata. As the years pass, Holst's idiom changes, and her music winds
close to late Britten. But the transformation began in the Thirties and
Forties, when Britten still caused controversy. Her expertise and talent
for contrast makes her solo cello variations on the Tudor piece, The
Fall of the Leaf, pull off the trick of retaining listener interest in
that too often descends into mere noodling.
She is extremely interested in setting musical elements against each
other -- not just keys, as I've noted, but instruments against instruments,
solo against mass. Again, this generates drama. In the second movement
of the Duo for Viola and Piano, for example, the piano establishes a
C-major tonality while the viola sings in keys other than C, before it
sinks into the piano's orbit on the very last note. In the outer movements
of the very dark String Trio, the viola stands apart from the violin
and cello, while in the slow movement, violin and viola accompany a singing
I get almost giddy when I find a composer's most recent work the most
interesting. Holst's String Quintet fills the bill. The earlier work,
despite its distinction,
seemed not only concentrated but also a bit constrained, a bit too careful.
With the quintet, Holst seems to relax, to integrate her full musical
personality, including her capacity for warmth, into the work. Although
the work takes its inspiration from the river Thames -- from its source
to its mouth. The first movement opens gorgeously in a golden Impressionist
haze. The second skips along. The finale varies a theme she found in
one of her father's notebooks. One still encounters the beautiful craft,
the idiom has expanded -- not merely chromaticism but modality as well
as her signature principles of dramatic contrast.
Court Lane gives good first readings of these works. They show you the
merit of these works. I hope other labels will take note. More Imogen!
S.G.S. (October 2009)