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CLASSICAL  December 2009

CLASSICAL December 2009

Subject:

Gustav's Imogen

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 21 Dec 2009 17:39:55 -0800

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Imogen Holst
Chamber Music

*  Phantasy Quartet (1928)
*  Duo for Viola and Piano (1968)
*  String Trio No. 1 (1944)
*  The Fall of the Leaf (1962)
*  Sonata for Violin and Cello (1930)
*  String Quintet (1982)

Court Lane Music
Court Lane CLM37601  TT: 74:51

Summary for the Busy Executive: The family firm.

Like many of his admirers, I first got more deeply into the music of
Gustav Holst through the pioneering study by his daughter Imogen.  Although
her own recordings of her father's music contradicted her writings, the
distortions she perpetrated one can put down to the temper of the times
-- when innovation and surprise became cardinal aesthetic virtues.  She
painted her father as a radical progressive, probably to protect his
reputation from the brickbats thrown Vaughan Williams's way, and played
down his deep roots in the English folk-song and choral tradition.  She
became the keeper of her father's flame at a decisive time.

However, she was much more than that.  She conducted with distinction.
She served as Britten's assistant at Aldeburgh.  She taught.  She wrote
penetratingly on a number of musical topics.  She also composed.

Her catalogue turned out rather slender, for several reasons.  First,
her decision to champion both her father's music and, later, Britten's
took up at least forty years of her time.  Second, like her father, she
had a horror of repeating herself.  Third, for a while she simply lost
interest in composing, resuming again only toward the end of her life,
when she retired from Aldeburgh.  I don't know for sure, but I speculate
that, like her father, she needed to earn a living, which again cut into
her time.

Gustav trained his daughter as a musician, and he did well.  One
can spot certain characteristics their work shares: notably elegance,
intelligence, and concentration.  An intensity simmers beneath a lid of
soft dynamics and very few notes.  They also have a taste for integrating
radical experiment with tradition.  For Gustav, this came out in his
fitting polytonality into a tonal concept.  He would write in three
different keys at once, and yet it would sound "normal," mainly because
his sense of harmony and his mastery of counterpoint were so strong
that listener got not clashes of keys (like the music of Milhaud), but
kaleidoscopic shifts in tonal centers.  Imogen, on the other hand, found
in the clash of keys -- not a coloring, as in Milhaud -- but a dramatic
principle which shapes many of her scores.  It reminds me a lot of
Nielsen's rhetorical use of key-centers.  An extremely interesting
composer in her own right, she never pushed her music.  The CD presents
the recording premiere of every work on the program.

Her music does lack the instantly-recognizable individuality of her
father's.  In a sense, she seems content to follow contemporary models,
combined with her taste for innovation.  Thus, her Cobbett prizewinning
Phantasy Quartet (1928) exemplifies British Pastoralism, even though
it's far more tightly written than most other such scores.  A fantastic
technique and thorough knowledge of the instruments -- some of it, at
least, probably gained through practical playing experience -- informs
the 1930 Sonata for Violin and Cello.  In fact, from that standpoint, I
think it outshines the Ravel sonata.  As the years pass, Holst's idiom
changes, and her music winds up fairly close to late Britten.  But the
transformation began in the Thirties and Forties, when Britten still
caused controversy.  Her expertise and talent for contrast makes her
solo cello variations on the Tudor piece, The Fall of the Leaf, pull
off the trick of retaining listener interest in a genre that too often
descends into mere noodling.

She is extremely interested in setting musical elements against each
other -- not just keys, as I've noted, but instruments against instruments,
particular solo against mass.  Again, this generates drama.  In the
second movement of the Duo for Viola and Piano, for example, the piano
establishes a C-major tonality while the viola sings in keys other than
C, before it finally sinks into the piano's orbit on the very last note.
In the outer movements of the very dark String Trio, the viola stands
apart from the violin and cello, while in the slow movement, violin and
viola accompany a singing cello.

I get almost giddy when I find a composer's most recent work the most
interesting.  Holst's String Quintet fills the bill.  The earlier work,
despite its distinction, seemed not only concentrated but also a bit
constrained, a bit too careful.  With the quintet, Holst seems to relax,
to integrate her full musical personality, including her capacity for
warmth, into the work.  Although not programmatic, the work takes its
inspiration from the river Thames -- from its source to its mouth.  The
first movement opens gorgeously in a golden Impressionist haze.  The
second skips along.  The finale varies a theme she found in one of her
father's notebooks.  One still encounters the beautiful craft, but the
idiom has expanded -- not merely chromaticism but modality as well as
her signature principles of dramatic contrast.

Court Lane gives good first readings of these works.  They show you the
merit of these works.  I hope other labels will take note.  More Imogen!

Steve Schwartz

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