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
Court Lane CLM37601 () (DDD) TT: 74:51.

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 aesthetic 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 penetratingly 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 took up 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 in composing, 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, and yet 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 in tonal 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 of 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 program.

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 Quartet (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 and 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 up fairly 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 a genre 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, particular 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 finally 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 cello.

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 not programmatic, 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, but 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)