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Holst: Cotswolds Symphony, Etc. (Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta)

February 2, 2013

 

If one were to ask anyone who had ever listened to classical music what they thought about Gustav Holst, they would probably reply, “Well, I guess The Planets Suite is okay.” Most people, even those with great experience in classical music, have never heard Holst’s other compositions. Perhaps they think there is nothing more to hear- after all, a little Planets goes a long way- or have had enough of early-to-mid twentieth century British Composers. However, they are missing out. Conductor JoAnn Falletta turns Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, Symphony in F, Japanese Suite, and two other tone poems into attractive and approachable works.

The first piece, one that Falletta tackles with assurance, is the Walt Whitman Overture. Composed in a mildy Wagnerian Style, the piece is happy and comforting. The Ulster Orchestra keeps the momentum of the piece moving, and by playing together, in tune, and with vigor, makes the Overture one of the best pieces on the disk. It would be a great start to any concert.

The title work on the disk is, of course, the Symphony in F Major, “The Cotswolds”. Though a full-fledged symphony of about 25 minutes, it is scarcely performed or recorded. This is preposterous, however, considering the nature of the work. The first movement, the Allegro, begins with a bold French Horn solo and invokes images of beautiful countryside and peaceful farms, truly in the English pastoral tradition. The second movement is the highlight, serene, melodic, and at times surprisingly Brucknerian. Both the third and fourth movements have the same character as the first, and wrap up the work with joyful simplicity. This critic sincerely hopes that Falletta’s robust rendition will revive a work that has been missing from performance for many years. It would be a loss if the Cotswolds Symphony disappeared.

The third piece, “A Winter Idyll”, is a fascinating, rather exotic tone poem that is played with notable clarity and precision by Northern Ireland’s only full-time orchestra. This critic was unfamiliar with the piece before listening to this disk, but has decided that it deserves another listen. However, it is nowhere near as noteworthy as the symphony.

The next piece, the Japanese Suite, evokes different feelings in different people. A conductor, upon hearing the piece, remarked that it was “trash meant to fill out the rest of the disk.” I would not go so far, yet agree that it is not a highlight. Some movements- the “Song of the Fisherman”, for example- sound like student works, introducing few new melodies throughout the movement. Others, like the Finale, deserve a second listening for their exotic, dance-like melodies and exuberant playing from the orchestra. Ultimately, it is easy to understand why the Japanese Suite is not played or performed often.

The final work on the CD is “Indra-Symphonic Poem”, inspired by Indian legends. Unlike the rather monotonous study on Japan mentioned above, Indra is long, exciting, and developed. Holst clearly gave great thought to the orchestration. Falletta manages the orchestra with a steady hand typical of an experienced conductor. Though not as fantastic as the Walt Whitman Overture and Cotswolds Symphony, this critic would listen to “Indra” again.

In a few words, anyone who respects classical music should track down this album! If the past is anything to judge by, it may be a very long time until these works are recorded, or even played again. Though some of the compositions are second-rate, the playing of the Ulster Orchestra is world-class, and the Cotswolds Symphony is a blockbuster piece. Perhaps in twenty years, when asked about Holst, the average passerby will remark, “Holst? Sure, I’ve heard the Planets, but he’s got some other stuff that is fantastic!”

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