Someone requested Holst's "Brook Green Suite" and it was perfect timing; I have been searching around for this Koch Classics disc lately, dying to hear it again. This has been my favorite Holst recording since the 1990s, and remains so. Listen, for instance, to the "St. Paul's Suite" which is executed here with total exuberance; the jig and Dargason country dance should find you doing just that, dancing! To my ears this is still the finest recorded performance. The disc in it's entirety is close to perfection, and The New Zealand Chamber Orchestra play under Braithwaite as if Holst had been at the recording session.
In the early years of his career Holst made little headway in the professional world of music. For economic reasons he was forced to spend several summers at the seaside, playing trombone in one of England's ubiquitous military bands. He was never terribly fond of this work, but it did give him a thorough understanding of brass instruments and popular arrangement techniques. That skill showed up in his two Suites for Military Band, and in 1910, in a collection of "Morris Dances". The Morris Dances heard here appeared in two arrangements, one for military band, the other for orchestra. Like his close friend and colleague, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst was enthusiastic about the folk song preservation work being done by by collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. The original harmonizations of these dances were realized by Cecil Sharp, a friend and dedicatee of at least one major Holst work (Somerset Rhapsody). Sharp's remarkable efforts eventually led to a collection of almost five thousand folk tunes and dances, and he contributed harmonizations to some 500 of these. Little else is known about this music. Holst was apparently commissioned to write four sets although only two remain. They may have been first performed in their brass version in 1911 at the Festival of Empire. As a rare and much needed commission early in his career, the Dances provided Holst with enough money for a much deserved holiday.
Both the "Lyric Movement" and the "Brook Green Suite" date from the twilight of Holst's life yet it is hard to imagine two more differently tempered works. The Brook Green Suite was written by the beloved and bespectacled teacher at the Saint Paul's School while the Lyric Movement is another Holst entirely, more pensive, despairing and ultimately resigned. The "Brook Green Suite" was written in 1933 and given an informal first performance in March of 1934 by the school orchestra. Holst died two months later. This suite shows none of the frustration, pain and worry that afflicted the composer during his final days. Like the St. Paul's Suite it is bathed in the bright light of C Major, and juxtaposes placid melodies with energetic jigs. The short opening 'Prelude' repeats a rich, descending C Major scale with a modal sounding melody above it. The 'Air' is of a slightly darker hue, its material closely related to a Welsh folk song. The final 'Dance' is again a jig; its melody was supposedly overheard by Holst while at a puppet show in Sicily. Although Holst was very sick in 1934, he managed to attend one through of the Brook Green Suite. He was not so fortunate with the "Lyric Movement" which he had to be content to hear on a BBC broadcast conducted by Adrian Boult. Scored for solo viola and small orchestra it is a thoroughly melancholy work. An opening, unmetered solo line by the viola and then the flute leads to a metered tune based on a fragment of the opening statement. The music builds to a remarkably strong climax which may have prompted Imogen's remark that she heard an "ardor" in the Lyric Movement reminiscent of Holst's early Wagnerian days. The work has two conclusions, one with a viola cadenza, one without.The solo line is very flattering to the instrument, generally set comfortably in the viola's most resonant register. Indeed the whole piece is viola-esque: a warm, very human and, as per its title, lyrical outpouring.
In Febuary of 1923 Holst fell and struck his head whilst conducting. Doctors recommended rest, but he ignored the suggestion and shortly thereafter suffered a nervous breakdown. The "Fugal Concerto" was written while Holst recovered from the incident. It was sketched aboard the ocean liner Aquatania as Holst travelled to the United States to participate in a music festival held in Ann Arbor, MI. On the autograph score Holst wrote that he had completed the work in the University of Michigan Library, and the first performance, a private one, happened at the University as well.
Scored for a small ensemble which includes a solo flute and oboe, this work is delightfully classical, refined and intelligent. The opening 'Moderato' uses fugue techniques, but does not really form a sophisticated fugue proper. The various voices do however enter at the expected pitches and work themselves into a point of high tension leading to a repeated dominant pedal in the lower strings; a fortissimo statement is made and the work finally concludes with a humorous, soft inversion of the theme. The second movement, marked Adagio, offers a sinuous melody over short bass notes; Imogen Holst praised it for its "exquisite poise". The final movement creates a rich contrapuntal display with the 17th century dance tune "If all the world were paper".
It's interesting to note the strange place the "Fugal Concerto" occupies in Holst's oeuvre. Critic Dyneley Hussey called it a "perverse exercise in the contrapuntal style, devoid of any warmth and with none of the real vitality which appears in the earlier Saint Paul's Suite for Strings". Imogen Holst argued vehemently against that attitude, and in particular tried to distance this work from the the neoclassical music of Hindemith and Stravinsky. With hindsight it is hard to hear how anyone could associate this good natured, humorous work with the more astringent continental neo-classicism.
In July 1913 the Saint Paul's Girls School, at which Holst had taught since 1905, opened a new wing devoted to music. One of its features (seemingly minor to us today) was the installation of sound proofed rooms. For Holst it was an incredible boon, enabling him to record and develop in peaceful silence the various musical ideas that had occurred to him during his often frenzied days of teaching. The first work completed in this new room was a four movement suite named for the school and intended for performance by the school orchestra. The "St. Paul's Suite" is remarkably complex and demanding for a school level group however, and as Imogen Holst reported, the young women's performance was far from definitive.
The suite opens with a forceful, almost raucous Jig in C Major which alternates a tripping dance figure in 6/8 with a heavier, more assertive response in 9/8. The 'Ostinato' movement begins with a whispering, muted ostinato figure in 2/4, which continues its three tone perpetual motion oblivious to the harmonic explorations in different meter happening all around it. The 'Intermezzo' juxtaposes two exotic gestures, one a passionate violin line supposedly based on on a theme Holst noted down while traveling in Algeria, the other an energetic but short lived vivace. Both themes appear elsewhere in Holst's work, the former from is earlier 'Oriental' Suite "Beni Mora" (1910) and the latter in his ballet music for "The Perfect Fool" (1918-1922). The 'Finale' is based on two of the most beloved and recognized tunes of all time, the sprightly, jigging "Dargosan" and the haunting "Greensleeves". This skillful and exciting interweaving of melodies was originally composed as the finale for Hol;st's second Suite for Military Band; it was transcribed for string orchestra to complete this bright, exuberant score which Imogen called one of her father's "happiest works".
Brook Green Suite for String Orchestra
4)Lyric Movment for Viola & Small Orchestra
A Fugal Concerto, Op. 40 No. 2
Morris Dance Tunes
8)Bean Setting (Stick Dance)
9)Country Gardens (Handkerchief Dance)
10)Constant Billy (Stick Dance)
11)Shepherd's Hey (Stick or Hand-Clapping Dance)
12)Laudnum Bunches (Corner Dance)
13)Rigs O' Marlow (Stick Dance)
14)How D'ye Do (Corner Dance)
St. Paul's Suite for String Orchestra
18)Finale (The Dargason)