A FEW months ago I applauded The Cloud Messenger (Arts, 9 December 2016), an almost unknown cantata by Gustav Holst (1874-1934); and another Holst choral rarity, The Coming of Christ (1927), has been issued by the pioneering EM Records (EMR CD004), in a sterling performance by the City of London Choir and Holst Orchestra under Hilary Davan Wetton, with Robert Hardy as narrator.
It was appropriate that the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra was engaged for a rare revival of The Hymn of Jesus by the Tewkesbury Choral Society, in Tewkesbury Abbey, last month. Holst was born in Cheltenham. Its museum (www.holstmuseum.org.uk) celebrates his life and works.
The Hymn of Jesus takes much of its text, a kind of ode to the dance, from the Apocryphal Gospel (or Acts) of St John, for which I remember as a student being deputed to search out the original Greek text for a now departed composer. Hearing this work performed so well under the baton of John Holloway sent shivers through me.
We are treated to both both “Vexilla regis prodeunt” (Venantius Fortunatus) and “Pange lingua” (Aquinas), two of the best-known and most uplifting plainsong Latin hymns, heralded by tenor trombone (Holst’s own instrument). Cor anglais, paired flutes, French horn and superb passages for refulgent upper and then lower voices (the latter in this performance fractionally flat, as also in the Amens) are significant features. “Pange lingua” then explodes like Holst’s Jupiter or Mars.
Tewkesbury’s gloriously light, cleaned pillars almost provided a comment on the music (”gloriosi praelium certaminis”; and the so-called Hymn for double chorus, “Glory to Thee, Father! Glory to Thee, Word!”, initiated the feeling that some of Holst’s oriental writing had found its way into this work (planned and composed at the time of the First World War). The first is sung unaccompanied, and its shifting chords have more than a touch of Vaughan Williams. The girls’ repeated, arching Amens were splendid and atmospheric.
“Fain would I be saved: and fain would I save. . .”, launching the paradoxical second sequence, began with a gorgeous piano, all voices singing low in their register, and its kaleidoscopic key shifts gratifyingly evoke an almost tangible sense of mystery. “Fain would I be pierced; and fain would I pierce.” “I am Mind of All!” Where are we, theologically, with all this? Is it as much Hindu (Vedic), Islamic, Sufi, as Christian?
And then comes the dance, breaking in almost before it is due, with “Divine grace is dancing” (the women’s voices, again striking). There follows “The Heav’nly Spheres make music for us; The Holy Twelve dance for us; All things join in the dance!” No wonder this work didn’t quite make it into the New Testament canon. Some of this is attributed to the “hymn” that Jesus and the Apostles are said to have sung after the Last Supper. A tambourine lends it an apt oriental feel.
Holst’s writing here unleashes the same kind of rapture as the Pole Szymanowski brings to his many settings of the Sufic poet Rumi. There is violent energy; exciting chromatic descents (“To you who gaze, a lamp am I: To you that know, a mirror”). The sudden widening out of the pace at this closing section (“To you who knock, a door am I: To you who fare, the way”). One preceding line, “Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing,” perhaps sums up the attitude. The work has been called “Holst’s gnostic exploration of time and space.”
I have some criticisms of the performance: at times, crucial words became a mush, and vital consonants were lost. No such complaint applied, however, to the ensuing Belshazzar’s Feast. Walton’s treatment of the famous drama could not have been clearer.
The orchestra played heroically; but the chief pleasure was the baritone soloist, Andrew Mayor, long ago head chorister of Magdalen College, Oxford, who delivered his fluctuating roles (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”, with cello and bass clarinet; “Babylon was a great city, Her merchandise was of gold and silver”, sung gloriously unaccompanied; and “Thou, O King, art King of Kings”) all filled the nave with wondrous sounds. Just to hear Mayor intone was uplifting in itself.