Holst: The Hymn of Jesus (HDCD review)

Also, The Perfect Fool, ballet music; Egdon Heath. Sir Adrian Boult, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD215.

Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) was the distinguished conductor who did so much to promote British music in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. Fortunately, he lived long enough into the stereo era to leave us plenty of fine recordings that testify to his importance as well. Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams are but a few of the composers whose works Boult championed. Holst (1874-1934) thought so highly of him, the composer asked him to premiere his most-famous piece, The Planets. So it's always good to have one of Boult's recordings restored to its finery, like this album of three Holst compositions.

The program begins with The Hymn of Jesus, which Holst wrote around the same period he wrote The Planets, finishing it in 1917, both works the products of the First World War. The Hymn of Jesus is a little over seventeen minutes long, and in performing it Boult conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the orchestra a group he led for many years. One can immediately hear similarities between the Hymn and the Planets almost from the opening notes; the former starts very gently before the chorus enters, and then the flow of melodic ideas and the various harmonies remind one of The Planets suite. Although it never reaches the thrilling pitch or serene bliss of The Planets, Holst's Hymn, which the composer translated from the original Greek, is quite lovely in its gentle, spiritual manner.

Holst wrote the opera The Perfect Fool a few years later, in 1921, and Boult gives us the ballet music from it, this time the conductor leading another ensemble he headed up for years, the London Philharmonic. The often-aggressive, self-assured ballet music makes a splendid contrast to the greater serenity of The Hymn of Jesus, the ballet music big and brash and a workout for one's speakers. It's about ten minutes long and rather a showpiece even for Holst, going from hugely forward, almost bombastic passages to moments of gentle tranquility.

The program concludes with the thirteen-minute symphonic poem Egdon Heath from 1927, a dark, gloomy affair reflecting the nature of the landscape Holst was describing. There's a bleakness to the music, a starkness, that nonetheless never inhibits its vibrant tone. So we've got kind of depressing music that is never actually depressing. It's probably the best thing on the album in its descriptive beauty.

HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have made this album available in several different formats, the one I listened to being an HDCD. Although HDTT usually transfer their recordings from tape, in this case they used a Decca vinyl LP, recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, in 1961. The sound exhibits a very wide dynamic range, with HDTT using enough noise reduction to keep ticks, pops, and hiss to the barest minimum without affecting the tonal balance or high end. There is the occasional odd background noise, to be sure, but it's nothing distracting. Voices in The Hymn of Jesus are a little bright in louder passages, and because of the wide dynamics they can sneak up and startle you. The Hymn also displays moderate depth and fairly good clarity, yet with a smooth orchestral response.

It's the two items with the LPO, however, that provide the most sonic splendor. The Perfect Fool ballet music and Egdon Heath appear even more dynamic than the Hymn, with greater transparency and a better sense of depth. They are more in the demonstration class than the Hymn, with a fine ambient bloom offering an added dimension of realism.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

2 comments:

  1. As a member of the BBC Symphony Chorus, I should clarify that the choir featured on this recording is not us.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hmmm, interesting. Thanks much. However, the HDTT transfer says it's the BBC SO Chorus; the two current Decca recordings of it (on collections) say it's the BBC SO Chorus; and an old, 1977 edition of the "Penguin Stereo Record Guide" says it's the BBC SO Chorus. It must have been a huge error, and you might want to contact Decca to correct it. It's never too late. :)

    John

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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