Holst: Cotswolds Symphony, Japanese Suite / Falletta, Ulster Orchestra

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Gustav Holst’s youthful enthusiasm for Wagner is reflected in his ebullient Walt Whitman overture written in 1899. Shortly afterwards he composed the Cotswolds Symphony which...

Gustav Holst’s youthful enthusiasm for Wagner is reflected in his ebullient Walt Whitman overture written in 1899. Shortly afterwards he composed the Cotswolds Symphony which embraces hints of contemporary British folk music but is dominated by the slow movement, a profound elegy for the utopian socialist William Morris. Though completed at college, A Winter Idyll shows real orchestral assurance. Indra is an accomplished tone poem revealing Holst’s interest in the legends of India, whilst the glittering and evocative Japanese Suite was written in response to a request from a Japanese dancer appearing in London. The Ulster Orchestra is one of Northern Ireland’s cultural cornerstones and since its foundation in 1966 has become one of the major symphony orchestras in the United Kingdom and Ireland. JoAnn Falletta was appointed Principal Conductor in May 2011, the orchestra’s twelfth but first female and first American to be appointed to the post.


All of this music is early with the exception of the Japanese Suite, and all of it has appeared on CD before, most notably (with the exception of the symphony) on the superb series of Holst discs issued over the years by Lyrita with such luminaries as Adrian Boult, David Atherton, and Nicholas Braithwaite at the helm. I would never want to part with those three Lyrita discs, but I find this new Naxos disc just as satisfying, and Falletta’s generally more inward, reflective style offers new insights. That it contains a performance of Holst’s only completed orchestral symphony, which gives the work new stature, only adds to its value as an addition to a discography understandably, but regrettably, dominated by one magnificent work. While only one of these works qualifies as a mature composition in a distinctive voice, even the student-written A Winter Idyll shows its composer in a good light, and proves that while fame may have eluded him until midlife, it was not for lack of talent or skill.

A Winter Idyll, the Walt Whitman Overture, and the “Cotswolds” Symphony, all effectively apprentice works written between 1897 and 1900, owe much to the example of the great German Romantics. The influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann in particular should not be surprising given Holst’s then-recent tutelage by Stanford and Parry at the Royal College of Music. And even a casual listener to the symphony will be able to guess that Holst was then much taken with Wagner. What is notable, however, is just how effectively he has already incorporated these voices into one of his own, albeit one less individual than that of the composer of The Planets, or Egdon Heath, or even Beni Mori of but a few years hence.

The symphony has had one previous recording on Classico with Douglas Bostock conducting. It is still available on other reissue labels, but Falletta’s performance improves on the earlier effort in every way. Tighter and weightier than Bostock in the main—though the scherzo is engagingly quicksilver—she convinces one that the symphony is much more than just a frame for the moving elegy for socialist visionary William Morris that comprises the second movement. Falletta similarly finds new depth in the transitional symphonic poem Indra (1903), emphasizing atmosphere and warmth where the alternative reading by Atherton inclines more toward brilliance and contrast.

The Japanese Suite is the one work here that is representative of the mature Holst, to the extent that any work can be said to represent a composer who notoriously hated to repeat himself. It reflects his developing interests in things Asian, and in folk music, and it shows him free of the old-school German romantic model. It was written in 1915 in response to a commission from Japanese dancer Michio Ito for a London recital, and so is exactly contemporaneous with The Planets. In fact, Holst stopped work on the larger suite to write the smaller one, and many ideas found in the former are adapted to the scale and delicacy of this attractive work that has been unfairly overshadowed by its bigger and more flamboyant sibling.

Its neglect may to some degree reflect the challenge it offers the conductor. Neither Falletta nor Andrew Davis in the other currently available recording on Chandos can match the character of Boult’s recording on Lyrita. More than either, Boult and the late-’60s London Symphony Orchestra bring out, through canny pacing, phrasing, and articulation of these haunting ancient tunes, the Japanese flavor Ito sought in this work. Falletta’s performance is still wonderfully sensitive and perfectly scaled, but here I must register my one clear preference for an alternative.

That said, clearly there is some good chemistry going in Ulster between its fine orchestra and the new American principal conductor. One can only hope that there will be many more releases like this in the future, and in the superb sound provided by the Grammy-winning producer and engineer, Tim Handley and Phil Rowlands. Definitely a winner.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Release Date: June 26, 2012

  • UPC: 747313291472

  • Catalog Number: 8572914

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: Gustav Holst

  • Conductor: JoAnn Falletta

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ulster Orchestra

  • Performer: Ulster Orchestra