Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter

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LABELS: Gonzo Media Group
WORKS: In the Bleak Midwinter… – a film by Tony Palmer
PERFORMER: Tamas Vasary, Sian Edwards
CATALOGUE NO: Gonzo Media Group TP-DVD 173 (NTSC system; PCM Stereo; 16:9 picture ratio)

Apart from The Planets, Holst is generally known for little else except the St Paul’s Suite and In the Bleak Midwinter. So it seems canny of Tony Palmer to call his documentary after that well-loved carol. The cue for the title is evidently critic and broadcaster Stephen Johnson’s comment that Holst’s affinity with England was not for some pastoral idyll but a more severe, Thomas Hardy-esque landscape, a ‘bleak midwinter’.
There follows not, as one might expect, an extract of Holst’s chilly portrait of Hardy’s country, Egdon Heath, but a movement from his early Cotswolds Symphony explicitly subtitled ‘In memoriam William Morris’. Holst, as the film spells out at some length, was a devoted Socialist whose prime inspiration had been Morris – rather odd, then, that Palmer doesn’t give the movement’s title as he does with other musical excerpts. These, by the way, are excellently performed, including a lovely extract from Holst’s beautiful but rarely heard choral Ode to Death.
As well as fresh interviews, including with Holst scholars Raymond Head and Michael Short, Palmer includes recently discovered footage of Imogen Holst, who was also a composer, talking about her father. There are also voice-overs from someone who sounds almost but not quite like Imogen giving spicy and presumably headline-seeking information such as that Holst actually lived in – not merely visited – a street of brothels when he was in Algeria: unfortunately the voice also states that Holst visited Algeria in 1903 – a full five years before he did so, an error that Imogen, who was an authority on her father’s life and work would never have made. Daniel Jaffé