Friday 24 April 2020

A new chamber version of Holst's The Cloud Messenger, from Kings College, London, gives us a leaner, more transparent version of the rarely performed choral ode

Gustav Holst The Cloud Messenger; The Choir of King's College, London, the Strand Ensemble, Joseph Fort; DELPHIAN
Gustav Holst The Cloud Messenger; The Choir of King's College, London, the Strand Ensemble, Joseph Fort; DELPHIAN
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 April 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Holst's rarely performed choral ode, undeservedly neglected and now revived in a new chamber version

For all the popularity of works such as The Planets, there is much of Gustav Holst's mature output that remains relatively unexplored. The recent recording by Joseph Fort and The Choir of King's College, London on Delphian introduces us to one of Holst's major works, the choral ode The Cloud Messenger which remains undeservedly unknown, and the choir also performs Holst's Five Partsongs Op.12.

There is a mystical side to Holst's nature which, if you consider only The Planets, is perhaps insufficiently understood. But in his earlier composing career he had been inspired not by astrology but by ancient Indian literature and religion; he even taught himself sufficient Sanskrit so that, with the aid of cribs, he could make his own English translations of ancient Indian literature. This would lead to his choral settings from the Rig Veda (works which are still not widely appreciated) and his opera Savitri, but also to his choral ode The Cloud Messenger.

Begun in 1903 and completed in 1910, it was inspired by one of the most admired love-poems of Indian literature, Meghadūta (Sanskrit for Cloud Messenger) by the fifth century poet Kālidāsa, considered the greatest of the Sanskrit poets. And Holst's choral ode sets his own text which is part translation, part paraphrase of the lyric poem. The work's premiere in 1913 was somewhat disastrous, as parts of it were under-prepared, and though there were subsequent performances in the composer's lifetime, it never really took off.

Joseph Fort & The Strand Ensemble recording Holst's The Cloud Messenger (Photo Delphian Records)
Joseph Fort & The Strand Ensemble recording Holst's The Cloud Messenger (Photo Delphian Records)
Perhaps part of the problem is that Holst wrote for quite a large orchestra, choir, semi-chorus and alto soloist, which makes the work rather bigger than perhaps most choral societies might wish. For this new recording from The Choir of King's College London, its director Joseph Fort has produced a chamber version of the piece, re-scoring it for instrumental ensemble of 15, here The Strand Ensemble. In a booklet note, Fort explains that he has kept the orchestral colours of Holst's original, including the way particular instruments are associated with particular phrases, but created what he terms a leaner version of the original, which enables The Cloud Messenger to be performed by a good chamber choir (Fort's choir here numbers 22 singers).

In terms of Holst's output it is important to understand that he conceived The Cloud Messenger originally in 1903, and the resulting work's large-scale, romantic style owes a great deal to this period of Holst's musical output. The gestation period of the work was one where Holst was only gradually coming to create his own musical personality, and a number of commentators have been somewhat dismissive of The Cloud Messenger.

But taken on its own terms, it is a striking piece and Fort's reduction not only gives us a leaner orchestration but enables the choral textures to be more transparent as sung by fewer singer. What is striking about the performance is quite how much power the 37 performers can bring to the work when necessary, and the extraordinary richness of the orchestration, Fort's 'leanness' does not mean we forego the remarkable range of colour in Holst's instrumental writing.

The choir and instrumental ensemble make a fine big, focussed sound in moments like the opening choral section 'O thou, who com'st from Heaven's king', and throughout both groups interact rather well, often creating what are lovely, transparent textures. For all the work's original large-scale forces, there is much music of delicacy here and Fort and his musicians clearly relish the music and there is a great deal to enjoy. The young voices of the choir bring a clarity to the textures, and the instrumentalists clearly enjoy their solo moments.

As for the work, whilst there is much to enjoy I have to confess that I found the text rather prosy and wordy, and did wish that Holst had perhaps worked with librettist. This is a narrative work, ultimately, and sometimes it comes over as a series of short, fascinating and often lovely incidents rather than a coherent and over-arching work, something the later Holst would do well in other works.

The Five Partsongs were written in 1902/1903 and are far more conventional in style. Well written for choir, they provide plenty of interest though there are only occasional flecks of the later Holst.

Joseph Fort, The Choir of King's College, London & The Strand Ensemble recording Holst's The Cloud Messenger (Photo Delphian Records)
Joseph Fort, The Choir of King's College, London & The Strand Ensemble
recording Holst's The Cloud Messenger (Photo Delphian Records)
This is an impressive and important disc. Fort and his young singers are on virtuoso form and, well partnered by the Strand Ensemble, bring out the strengths of Holst's neglected choral ode. It will be on the necessary listening lists of most lovers of English music, and I do hope that it spurs a number of choirs to explore the work.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934), arr. Joseph Fort - The Cloud Messenger, Op.30 [43.24]
Gustav Holst - Five Partsongs, Op. 12 [14.40]
The Choir of King's College, London
The Strand Ensemble
Caitlin Goreing (alto)
Joseph Fort (conductor)
Recorded 9-11 June 2019, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak, London
DELPHIAN DCD34241 1CD [58.06]

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