Holst Connections Abound in Concert of English Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Holst, Elgar, Arnold, Bliss: Paulina Voices /Heidi Pegler (conductor); St Paul’s Girls’ School Chamber Orchestra / Leigh O’Hara (conductor); Flowers Band / Paul Holland (conductor); All Saints’ Church, Cheltenham, 21.9.2013 (RJ)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The cloud capp’d towers; Over hill, over dale
Gustav Holst: Ave Maria
Sir Edward Elgar: The Snow; Fly, singing bird, fly
Holst: St Paul’s Suite
Sir Malcolm Arnold: Fantasy for Brass Band, op 114b
Sir Arthur Bliss: Checkmate: Ceremony of the Bishops
Vaughan Williams: Overture to The Wasps; Prelude to 49th Parallel
Holst: Venus (from The Planets)
Elgar: The Enigma Variations (selection)

Gustav Holst’s 139th birthday was celebrated on a larger scale this year thanks to the collaboration between the English Music Festival and the Holst Birthplace Trust. The EMF organised two daytime recitals in the Cotswold village church of Wyck Rissington, where the 17 year old aspiring composer secured his first professional engagement as organist for the princely stipend of £4 per annum. The modest organ, comprising one manual and seven speaking stops, was pressed into service for an varied morning recital of English music given by Duncan Honeybourne. Judging from the accounts I have heard, the instrument, which was relatively new when Holst played it, emitted a number of squeaks and grunts which even the versatile Mr Honeybourne was unable to hold in check. Oxford Liedertafel were spared mechanical noises in their delightful afternoon a cappella concert there.

Much of Holst’s professional life was spent at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, London, which is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year, and it was particularly appropriate for current pupils from the school to perform in the annual Holst Birthday concert in the church where his father had been organist. Paulina Voices represent la crème de la crème of the School’s singers whose excellence and competence became evident as they tackled Holst’s magnificent eight part Ave Maria, composed in 1900. I also very much enjoyed two Shakespeare settings by Vaughan Williams: the mystical qualities of The cloud capp’d towers were well articulated with Over hill, over dale providing a light and lively contrast. Elgar’s little- known settings of poetry by his wife Alice were also given an airing and proved to be fine examples of this genre. It was impossible not to be impressed by the Brahmsian harmonies of The Snow with two violins soaring above the voices, while in Fly, singing bird the contrasts between movement and thoughtful reflection were well delineated.  Conductor Heidi Pegler clearly possesses remarkable skill in coaxing such fine performances from her gifted pupils.

Their colleagues from the School’s Chamber Orchestra then performed the St Paul’s Suite which Holst had composed long ago for their predecessors. The current director of Music at St Paul’s, Leigh O’Hara, directed a highly satisfactory account of this wonderful piece which always springs surprises no matter how many times one hears it. My hearing of it this time was coloured by a fascinating programme note by EMF’s founder Em Marshall-Luck, herself a former pupil of the School, where she regards the different movements as reflecting different spaces within the School. She see the Jig as representing the entrance hall with its many comings and goings, the Ostinato as the more refined music wing with its hushed corridors, and the busy finale as the dining hall with plenty of conversations going on. These were perceptive comments, though I beg to differ with her suggestion that the Intermezzo represents a pupil pouring out her woes to her friends. For one thing the young ladies of St Paul’s don’t strike one as “moaning Minnies”; and the sinuous melody which dominates the movement has more to do with the Orient and Beni Mora.

The finale, a transcription of the fourth movement from the Second Suite for Military Band, paved the way for the second half of the concert given by the Flowers Band.  While none of Holst’s own band compositions were played, Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Brass Band more than made up for this. There is a serious undercurrent to the Fantasy, and the players rose to the challenge under Paul Holland’s precise direction, especially in the splendid fanfare with its lyrical second theme, and the grim, eerie scherzo.  Brass bands are more competitive animals than symphony orchestras and when the Flowers Band claims to be ranked among the twenty top brass bands in the world it has the certificates and cups to back up the claim.

Incidentally there will be an opportunity to hear more of Malcolm Arnold’s music on October 19th and 20th at the Malcolm Arnold Festival at Northampton (details here).

The rest of the programme was devoted to arrangements of symphonic works and including a very effective performance of Vaughan Williams’ Overture to The Wasps and his stirring Prelude to the wartime propaganda film 49th Parallel. I doubted whether the Band would be able to justice to Venus (from Holst’s Suite, The Planets), originally scored for celesta and harp, but was proved wrong thanks to some carefully controlled and delicate musicianship – from the two soloists especially – which enveloped the audience in an atmosphere of calm and peace.

Extracts from Elgar’s Enigma Variations rounded off the evening with a turbulent Seventh Variation (Troyte), a graceful Eighth (Winifred Norbury), a sublime Nimrod and a triumphant ending in which the composer himself emerges from the shadows. With musicianship of this quality I cannot help feeling that the Flowers Band under their dynamic conductor Paul Holland are about to shoot up the rankings.

Roger Jones