MUSIC: The Golden Goose steps out

Choral rarities by Holst Guildford Cathedral
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The Independent Culture
After listening last Saturday to two major neglected choral works by Holst (given by the enterprising Guildford Choral Society and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Hilary Davan Wetton), I could not help thinking that his music is more in need of a major review than Elgar's. How can we allow so much of this great composer's endlessly fascinating work to languish in obscurity?

Take, for example, King Estmere, a substantial work for choir and large orchestra. It was written in 1903, when the composer was approaching 30 - exceptionally, it was published long before its successful first performance in 1908, and it has not been heard for decades.

In today's terms, the sentiments of the 15th-century story concerning King Estmere's wooing of a Moorish princess with the help of magical herbs and music, and a fleeting reference to "merry England", may seem somewhat fey and Pre-Raphaelite. But it suited a composer who had just had a belated honeymoon in Germany.

What of the music? 1903 vintage Holst is sensual, romantic and bursting with ideas. He treats the story pictorially and operatically - there are themes concerning love, enchantment and battling armies; many changes of tempo and some deeply expressive orchestral interludes. The setting of the 15th-century words can occasionally sound awkward, but the unusual modal choral writing is typical of the later Holst, being more concerned with clear story-telling than with counterpoint. The triumphant ending, with its sudden, yearning pianissimo phrase, was stunning. This is a work that many choral societies would surely relish.

What became clear during the performance was Holst's mastery of this late-19th-century romantic style, albeit one his fertile imagination was pushing to its very limits.

All the way through, there were colours and harmonies that were redolent of the mature Holst. It is hardly surprising that Holst eventually came to realise that this style was not sufficient to sustain a composing career, but that need not detract from the real worth of works, like King Estmere, that were written during this period.

By the time The Golden Goose was written, in 1926, Holst had long arrived at his mature style. This choral ballet, intended for students at St Paul's and Morley College, should in theory include mime, dancers and costumes - and should really be performed outside. Mercifully we were spared the trappings (and the cold easterlies) and could concentrate on the music.

The story, adapted by Jane Joseph from Grimm's Fairy Tales, is about a princess who cannot laugh and provided many opportunities for Holst to indulge his love of the absurd. There is no doubt that without colour and mime in the central mummers' play, not to mention the humorous imitation of a barrel organ, things fell a bit flat. But the orchestral dances, with their transparent lines and often earthy orchestration, were mature Holst at his very finest.

Throughout, the choir and orchestra coped well with the difficult cathedral acoustics. There were a few ragged entries and uncertainties in King Estmere but generally both pieces had confident and enthusiastic performances. But surely, in The Golden Goose music, the opening and closing choral sections beginning "Sound drum and trumpet" should have had a Purcellian spryness; they are marked andante, not adagio.

With all the intense hard work that was put into these performances, it is good to know that these works are shortly to be recorded (by Hyperion) - it is also worth noting that a very large audience warmly applauded both novelties, as well as Anne Mason's deeply felt and well projected performance of Elgar's Sea Pictures.

Raymond Head