February 12, 2009


Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Ballet from “The Perfect Fool”; The Golden Goose; The Lure; The Morning of the Year. Joyful Company of Singers and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Reznicek: Symphony No. 1, “Tragic”; Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance. Marina Prudenskaja, mezzo-soprano; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $16.99.

     Here are some good and interesting early-20th-century works by some good and often-neglected composers – but there is nothing especially compelling on either disc. Gustav Holst wrote a number of interesting orchestral pieces, but the first volume of Chandos’ series of his music for orchestra does not contain any of them, with the possible exception of the ballet music from his opera The Perfect Fool (a rather clumsy sendup of Wagner’s Parsifal). This entire CD is devoted to ballet music, and some of the pieces have considerable verve and charm; but the two longest works, The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year, are “choral ballets” whose texts are thoroughly inane and detract from the quality of the music accompanying them. The Golden Goose (1926) is based on the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, about a princess who could not laugh until she saw a parade of people all stuck to an enchanted goose. The Morning of the Year (1926-7) is a rather naïve celebration of seasonal renewal and “the mating ordained by Nature to happen in the spring of each year.” Holst’s music for these ballets is appropriately bright, lively and surface-level, but The Perfect Fool (1918-22), whose ballet represents the spirits of Earth, Water and Fire, remains a more impressive piece of tone painting. The fourth work on the disc, The Lure (1921), is a short and thankfully wordless ballet about moths dancing around a candle flame, with lively but not particularly distinguished music. The late Richard Hickox leads the Joyful Company of Singers and BBC National Orchestra of Wales with enthusiasm in all these works, and the pieces are certainly of interest in the context of a comprehensive survey of Holst’s orchestral music, but there is not much here that will sustain itself over repeated listenings.

     Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, nowadays known almost entirely for his opera Donna Diana – particularly its sparkling overture – actually produced a substantial body of music in a wide variety of forms. Intelligent and well-versed in other composers’ works, he suffered from never developing a style that was uniquely his own – or, to be more precise, he developed a large number of styles, but seemed to keep discarding them. His orchestral structure and color are always impressive, but his music rarely plumbs the emotional depths that he apparently wanted it to reach. His “Tragic” symphony (1902) is a case in point. Running nearly an hour, it opens with a large, 23-minute movement that clearly delineates “masculine” and “feminine” themes, includes a fugue and ranges stylistically from neo-Baroque to neo-Brucknerian. But the movement seems to have no central purpose – and the remaining three movements seem largely unconnected to it. The Scherzo is nicely balanced, the slow movement has elements of both Wagner and Mahler, and the finale builds a set of variations around a Berlioz-style idée fixe. The symphony’s ending does have tragedy, or at least pathos, but the work as a whole seems to sprawl without ever becoming focused – even when interpreted with as much sensitivity as Frank Beermann brings to it. The Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance (1913) are far simpler, more direct and more successful. They feature a reduced string section and lovely instrumental touches, such as a harp in the second song and winds and horns in the third. The songs’ sentiments are straightforwardly biblical, but the to-the-point construction – the songs last two to four minutes – gives this work a compressed solemnity that goes beyond the words themselves. Marina Prudenskaja sings effectively and forthrightly, allowing the songs’ sentiments to flow naturally. The songs may not be great music, but they are thoughtful and meaningful, and more successful than Reznicek’s larger-scale First Symphony.

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