Holst's Choral Symphony is given its Proms premiere this year. Conductor David Atherton takes a few minutes out of rehearsal to tell us why it's worth a listen
In Prom 14 you’re conducting the Proms premiere of Holst’s First Choral Symphony, one of his lesser known works. What's it like?
The Planets is Holst’s best-known work, by far. Anyone listening to the Choral Symphony for the first time should not expect similarly vibrant and exuberant orchestration, nor music which is as immediately descriptive. Holst’s choice of contrasting poems by Keats spread over a 52-minute canvas perturbed many of his literary friends who couldn’t understand the possible musical connections; for Holst the poems he chose provided him with the opportunity to focus principally on the idea of the poet’s imagination triumphing over his actual existence.
How does Holst balance choral and symphonic elements?
For the most part the orchestral writing is somewhat subservient to the demands of the chorus, only really coming into its own during the third movement, a scherzo suggesting the ‘winged flight’ of Mercury from The Planets. Elsewhere many of his rhythmic groupings suggest the dance-like character of his ballet suite from The Perfect Fool, but overall the introvert nature of much of the poetry demanded a similarly restrained treatment in his use of both chorus and orchestra.
Holst’s Choral Symphony has come in for more than its fair share of criticism: do you think the work is a success or a failure?
Without a doubt the Choral Symphony is a heartfelt work and one which, according to his daughter Imogen, Holst considered to be ‘as good as anything else he had written’. Prommers are unlikely to go away humming the tunes, but hopefully will have an uplifting experience.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Delius’s Brigg Fair complete the programme. Delius, Elgar and Holst all died in 1934 – do you think was this the end of an era for British music?
Although it would be convenient to think of this as the end of an era, all three were stylistically so different that not too much should be made of this coincidence. Certainly Britten and Tippett would have been very different composers without their influence. The same certainly can’t be said of Harry Birtwistle, whose music I conduct at the late-night Prom on 4 August – he has absolutely nothing in common with any of them!
What’s special for you about performing at the Proms?
Performing at the Proms is always a special experience for me. Having made my first appearance in 1968 as, I am told, the youngest conductor in its history, I have enjoyed coming back virtually every year since then to savour the unique and special atmosphere. Nowhere else are the fans so involved, and yet knowledgeable. Occasionally their enthusiasm can be a little misplaced, as when a budding conductor stood directly in front of one of my soloists and proceeded to beat time throughout the entire concerto, unfortunately about half a second behind throughout. But generally the enthusiasm and energy supplied by the Prommers is a tremendous boost for all the performers – they truly turn each evening into a memorable event.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
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