Imogen Holst • Britten
If Imogen Holst chose to remain largely known as her father’s biographer and as Britten’s long-time musical assistant, that must have been by her own choice, because this latest of recent recordings of her music indicates, yet again, just how fine her composing talent was. The unaccompanied Mass in A minor (set in Latin) was written in 1927 when a very young Imogen was studying with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. You wonder what he could have found to say about this already flawless technical mastery of her chosen idiom, with its cool clarity and winsome lyrical streak.
A Hymne to Christ and the Three Psalms, both dating from the 1940s, take a more conventional stance, although the Psalms’ spare and angular string-orchestra accompaniment hints at wider horizons. Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, a group of six Keats settings for female choir and harp, has something of the intricate virtuosity of Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go? (a setting of the 17th-century Scottish poet William Cleland, written for the Purcell Consort in 1972); in both works the music is so beautifully written that the conventions of the genre are left far behind, while the orchestration of Britten’s brilliant early cantata is unerringly telling and accomplished.
These performances are poised, immaculate, and just a little lacking in light and shade: the octane-level shoots up in the Keats settings, where the choir’s female contingent evidently enjoys itself.