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Courageous Holst revival pays off  

by
09 December 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears The Cloud Messenger at Tonbridge School

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THE Tonbridge Philharmonic Society, celebrating the 70th anniversary of its foundation, is one of comparatively few local organisations that can match a very substantial choir with a regular full-sized orchestra, well able to perform concerts of its own.

The chorus’s standards are gratifyingly good: in full flow, it produces an exciting and finely articulated sound in the Chapel of St Augustine of Canterbury at Tonbridge School. The chapel, drastically damaged by fire in 1988, was handsomely rebuilt, and sports a rewarding acoustic.

Thanks to Matthew Willis, the Philharmonic’s inspiring music director, the Philharmonic has just demonstrated another virtue — initiative — in mounting a performance of a choral work that has languished miserably since its launch in 1913, and another composed in 1947 by Gerald Finzi, which is rarely heard in its full orchestral version.

Finzi’s For St Cecilia is a setting of six eight- to 12-line stanzas by Edmund Blunden. The poetic manner is heightened, even a fraction pompous, since Blunden has clearly sought to imitate the odes of the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet this is the kind of text to which Finzi responded particularly well — as with Ralph Knevet (1600-71) and George Peele (c.1556-96) for A Farewell to Arms, or more famously Thomas Traherne in Dies Natalis.

The music is different from the usual Finzi: the opening could easily be Parry. The interplay of upper or lower voices with a mezzo-soprano soloist (the superbly engaging Linda Finnie) was one of its noteworthy assets.

At “How came you, lady of fierce martyrdom?” the music verges, briefly, on the purity of Dies Natalis. The mezzo’s “You found the soul of music yet half dumb”, followed by nicely honed upper voices (“Art’s clue, a studious angel alit from heaven”), and many orchestral touches made a marked impression: two beautifully shaded fade-outs, a clarinet solo redolent of Finzi’s concerto two years later, plus lark-like flute at “where her clear notes guide” and the excitement generated in the final stanza’s summatory rhyming couplets (“Exult in music’s strife and music’s calm”) all shone.

The choir’s calmer passages were by turns beautifully balanced. The percussion’s fading bell effect left us, indeed, “Blest in the life of universal song”.

The revelation, however, was a 45-minute choral work by Gustav Holst which is — unbelievably — almost never heard. Holst’s many works of oriental inspiration are perhaps not all gripping. But this work, The Cloud Messenger, which has not — I understand — received a performance in more than three decades, is truly a wonder: it could enter the mainstream repertoire tomorrow, and would earn accolades for choral societies anywhere.

It may be that the largely secular, although visionary, text has put some off; or the periodic Eastern geographical associations — Himalaya, Ganga = Ganges, or Mount Kailasa (Kailash) — make promoters over-cautious; for these allusions intrude not at all, except to invite rich colourings in the music. It is more probable that promoter just do not know the work exists, or are unaware of its quality.

The text is a most remarkable prose poem. It depicts the longing of an exiled servant or attendant, banished for some failing from the lush groves of the Hindu gods. He longs to send a message to his beloved, “my second self, pining as a storm-swept flow’r”, wearied, sorrowing, and lonely, and relies on a friendly passing cloud to carry her his love message. He then visualises the cloud’s journey over the beautiful passes, high mountains, rich streams, and lush valleys of the Himalayas.

The exotic words — from Sanskrit — remind me of the Song of Songs (“There in the temple are the dancers, fair as thy bride the lightning, their tresses bound in jasmine . . .”), or anticipate the rapture of Sufi verse; and briefly look forward to Holst’s dancing The Hymn of Jesus (from the Apocryphal Gospel of St John). Only twice does the composer introduce what he feared might seem oriental cliché: a wonderful harmonic minor for “the sacred city on mount Kailasa”, and a twirling Turkish feel in one pirouetting sequence. Moreover, parts of the enchanted prose poem have the feel of Walt Whitman (who also enthused over Hindu mystic verses).

The Cloud Messenger was Holst’s final venture (of many) into oriental texts. It proves a gratifyingly mature work. The mezzo-soprano has a few telling lines (“Behold her yearning for thee . . . a poor thin wandering stream, like the braided tresses of one early widowed”), gorgeously and evocatively sung, and sounding like Elgar’s Angel, or Wagner’s Erda.

The alternation of these impressively assured male and female voices, plus their frequent uniting, sometimes homophonically, and always aptly for this sensitive work, combined to beguile the tender saga of this joyous, uplifting cloud journey.

The Philharmonic choir’s singing was admirable, maintaining intensity and delight through a long, painstakingly rehearsed, challengingly unfamiliar work. Equally, the orchestra’s playing (including attractive viola, cello, flute, and harp solos), sounded polished, refreshing, concentrated, and alert.

The Cloud Messenger should enter the repertoire: congratulations to Matthew Willis and his well-marshalled Tonbridge forces for courageously disinterring it and gloriously proving their point.

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