Sunday 14 August 2016

Treasure Island Music’s acquisition of the back catalogue of Unicorn Records brings the opportunity to hear again Sir David Willcocks directing fine performances of Holst’s Hymns from The Rig Veda, Two Eastern Pictures and Hymn to Dionysus on a disc that collectors will want to snap up

I am pleased to hear that Treasure Island Music has recently acquired the catalogues of Gamut Records, Unicorn Records Ltd & Kanchana Productions Limited, collectively known as Unicorn Kanchana. They will be keeping these master recordings alive by re-issuing in both physical (CD) & digital formats.

All of the information regarding these products has been taken from the original album art work, with additional data from John Goldsmith, Siva Oake & Nigel Brandt. There is an absolute gold mine of music in the back catalogues of these labels so we can expect some enticing releases.

The first to be received by me is a re-issue of Gustav Holst’s Hymns from The Rig Veda, Two Eastern Pictures and Hymn to Dionysus performed by the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir David Willcocks with Osian Ellis (harp)

DKP (CD) 9046

Dedicated to Balfour Gardiner, Holst had been working on Hymn to Dionysus Op.31 No.2, for female voices and orchestra, during the early part of 1913. The words are from Gilbert Murray’s translation of the opening chorus of Euripides’ Bacchae. Sir David Willcocks brings a beautifully gentle, pastoral opening for orchestra to which the female voices of the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir blend quite wonderfully.  The 1984 recording allows some lovely orchestral detail to be heard. The choir handle the faster, rhythmic passages brilliantly, rising midway to a terrific climax before moving through passages full of energy, creating an effect of brilliance and light, with a terrific vibrant coda.

Holst began work on his translations from the Rig Veda as early as 1907. The Rig Veda is the earliest known work of Sanskrit literature of which the hymns are simple evocations of the gods, including Agni (God of fire), Ushas (The dawn), Surya (The sun), Vayu (The wind) and the Maruts (Indra’s storm cloud gods).
His Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda were composed between 1909 and 1912. Sir David Willcocks takes the Hymns in chronological order starting with the Second Group – for women’s chorus and orchestra) dating from 1909.

To Varuna (God of the Waters) has a gentle opening, a descending motif for orchestra which the women’s choir take into a rather beautiful theme. Harp and orchestra take the music ahead with the chorus building in strength, through some very fine orchestra passages. It is impressive how Holst moves so quickly from more dynamic passages to quieter moments such as when the solo violin joins with the gentle chorus. Willcocks reveals some lovely individual instrumental moments, wonderfully controlled choral passages and a glorious moment when the orchestra with horns reaches an outburst.

A nicely rhythmically pointed To Agni (God of Fire) follows with some crisp and accurate part singing before rising to an exceptionally fine coda with the acoustic of All Saints, Tooting, London heard to full effect. 

The orchestra rises wonderfully out of the choral opening of Funeral Chant through quite magical phrases, the orchestra and choir keeping a lovely gently rocking motion. There are more beautifully controlled choral passages, exquisitely sung, using the acoustic to terrific effect before the coda.

Holst’s First Group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda for chorus and orchestra were written between1908 and 1910. The Battle Hymn opens with an orchestral marching theme to which the male voices, then female voices of the RCM Chamber Choir join, rising to a fine, buoyant climax at the end.  

The choir alone bring a gentle chant to open To the Unknown God. A gong sounds as orchestral basses bring a rhythmic, slow plod. The choir join to bring a solemn idea, with more, gentle gong strokes, the orchestra continuing to provide a solemn accompaniment. Deep brass add a richer, heavier plod with fine textures as the music rises through some wonderfully dramatic passages before falling for the orchestra to lead quietly to the coda – and a hushed gong stroke.

The Third Group for women’s chorus and harp dates from 1910. Hymn to the Dawn opens with an attractive theme for harp played by Osian Ellis to which the choir bring some beautiful phrasing in this really distinctive gentle hymn. There are some really lovely harmonies from the choir.

Hymn to the Waters is an equally gentle hymn as the delicate sound of the harp opens. The choir join to add a more dynamic sound, around which the harp brings some lovely phrases. This choir’s phrasing and control is quite wonderful in the fast passages.

The choir opens quietly and gently in Hymn to Vena (Sun rising through the mist), soon joined by the harp with descending phrases, bringing a lovely gentle flowing quality. The music then rises in dynamics whilst keeping the steady tempo, through the most beautifully controlled choral passages before rising in the coda, Osian Ellis bringing the final bars.

With the Hymn of the Travellers the harp brings a faster moving motif over which the choir soon bring their fine sound in a rather eastern flavoured theme with a lovely subtle rise and fall.

Composed in 1912 the Fourth Group, for men’s chorus and orchestra opens with Hymn to Soma (the juice of a herb) to which the men’s voices of the RCM Chamber Choir bring a fine rhythmic theme, finding, as do the Royal Philharmonic, many subtleties of rhythm and phrasing.

The fine voice of baritone, Gerald Finley opens Hymn to Manas (the spirit of a dying man) at a distance before the choir take up the theme. The soloist is again heard in the distance before the choir take over again in this exquisite piece. The music rises in dynamics and power before it drops in a wonderfully controlled moment. The baritone soloist is heard again before the choir gently move ahead with exquisite control in the hushed passages that lead to the coda.

Two Eastern Pictures for women’s voices and harp, written in 1911, are based on the Spring and Summer cantos of Kalidasa’s poem Ritsusamhara which describes the six seasons of the Indian year. Spring opens with a vibrant, fast moving harp theme from Osian Ellis to which the women’s voices add a joyous skipping theme in a piece that is lighter than the hymns. The harp opens Summer to which the choir add a hummed line before the text is sung, bringing the feel of a warm, languorous day in this quite lovely piece in which the choir rise before a gentle coda.

The opportunity to hear again Sir David Willcocks directing these fine performances of works that reveal Holst’s gift for finding distinctive choral textures makes this a disc that collectors will want to snap up. The recording from the expert team of Christopher Palmer and Bob Auger is excellent. 

The booklet is a facsimile of the original with full English texts and excellent notes from Colin Matthews.


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