The Cloud Messenger, Op.30 [chamber version arr. by Joseph Fort]
Five Partsongs, Op.12
Caitlin Goreing (alto)
The Choir of King’s College London
The Strand Ensemble
Recorded: 9-11 June 2019 at All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: DELPHIAN DCD34241
Duration: 58 minutes
A rarely performed choral ode by Gustav Holst has been given a new lease of life. The Cloud Messenger is a sumptuous expression of late-romanticism and the last of his works occupied by ancient Indian literature and religion which include the Hymns from the Riga Veda and Savitri. The composer’s own translation of words by the fifth-century Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa outlines the tale of an exiled nature-spirit who persuades a passing cloud to take a message of love to the Himalayas where a loyal wife waits his return.
Lasting some forty minutes, it’s an ambitious score encompassing exotic travelogue and romantic fantasy: grand yet remote vistas, yearning sentiment and ecstatic climaxes. If its imaginative power doesn’t quite disguise occasional weaknesses its novel idiom, notwithstanding echoes of Wagner, is strikingly new and predates The Planets only by a couple of years.
A disappointing premiere in 1913 did not help the work’s fortunes, nor a damning assessment some years later as “a dismal failure” from the composer’s daughter, Imogen. Richard Hickox’s premiere recording (Chandos/1990) refuted this and this magnificent slimmed-down account by Joseph Fort brings blue-sky transparency with its chamber scoring for fifteen players (string quintet, single brass and woodwind with harp, celesta and timpani), all excellent, while remaining faithful to the original conception.
Immediately apparent is the vividness of playing from the Strand Ensemble and the freshness of twenty-two voices from the Choir of King’s College. Engineer Matthew Swan brilliantly captures the students’ youthful vitality and well-projected diction. The opening invocation, ‘O thou, who com’st from Heaven’s king’, comes like a bolt out of the blue and blazes with conviction. With such modest vocal forces one might quibble at the absence of differentiation between tutti and semi-chorus (Holst’s score specifies “only a few voices” in certain passages), but contrasts in weight and refinement are mostly achieved it barely matters. Caitlin Goreing has the makings of a fine career, and delivers an atmospheric portrait of the lonely wife, tender yet commanding.
The Five Partsongs, written a decade earlier, make an attractive coupling in settings of five different poets. To their straightforward idiom the singers respond with compelling warmth or unvarnished tone or heart-ease, the latter quality in ‘Come to me’, its longing expressed by Christina Rosetti drawing a neat parallel to the pain of separation concluding The Cloud Messenger.
With comprehensive presentation, this impressive release should be given consideration by all involved in chamber choirs.