Holst: The Mystic Trumpeter; First Choral Symphony
The Mystic Trumpeter, Holst’s lusciously Wagnerian setting of Walt Whitman, was composed in 1904, revised in 1912 then neglected until 1979 when Colin Matthews edited it for its first recording. Here is its third outing, the chief asset of which is soprano Susan Gritton’s unaffected engagement with Holst’s bright-eyed and full-hearted response to Whitman. Andrew Davis conducts a warm and idiomatic account, though purists may question his not only adopting some of Matthews’s celesta-and-percussion gilding to Holst’s score, but also adding a tambourine to reinforce Whitman’s plea for ‘languishing faith’ to be renewed!
There’s no such tamperings with the 1925 Choral Symphony. Here, Holst compiled texts by Keats for a work about art and mortality, themes which deeply preoccupied him after the carnage of World War I. Despite its first movement Bacchanal, there’s little musical warmth (save for when Gritton sings) until the finale which has a surprisingly strong affinity with Mystic Trumpeter. Davis and his forces bring out that movement’s idealism, most movingly in the culminating noble melody which sets Keats’s sentiment that great artists have ‘left [their] souls on earth’. The chorus is superb here, and copes well with the technical hurdles of the first and third movements. Alas, it is less impressive in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, which requires quiet, sustained singing for its enchanted atmosphere. Holst’s request for piano dolce (quiet and sweetly) for the urn’s ‘fair youth’ and his beloved is utterly trashed by the chorus’s rough mezzo-forte response.