Imogen Holst – String Chamber Music

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Imogen Holst
Phantasy Quartet
Duo for Viola and Piano
String Trio No.1
The Fall of the Leaf
Sonata for Violin and Cello
String Quintet

Simon Hewitt Jones & David Worswick (violins), Tom Hankey (viola), Oliver Coates & Thomas Hewitt Jones (cellos) and Daniel Swain (piano)

Recorded August 2007 in All Saints Church, West Dulwich, London


Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: October 2008
CD No: COURT LANE MUSIC
CLM37601
Duration: 75 minutes

Imogen Holst (1907-1984) attended St Paul’s School for Girls, where her father, Gustav Holst, was Director of Music from 1905. She went to the Royal College of Music in 1926 and studied composition with Gordon Jacob and George Dyson, harmony and counterpoint with Ralph Vaughan Williams and conducting with W. H. (Billy) Reed. With such a pedigree her music is long overdue for recording; the works here are all premières.

In 1928 Imogen Holst won the Cobbett Prize for her Phantasy Quartet. This 10-minute work is transparently written and pastoral in flavour. Based on two themes, which occur in different forms throughout the piece, the quartet builds to a passionate climax before ending peacefully.

A couple of years later, while visiting Vienna, she wrote the Sonata for Violin and Cello, a substantial work full of colourful writing. The first movement is outgoing and energetic especially in the middle section whose ostinato bubbles away vigorously. The Adagio, which follows, adds sober dissonance to the mix; the finale is a light-hearted jig with innovative writing of glissandos and quadruple stopping.

In 1940 Imogen Holst was appointed by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, later to become the Arts Council, to be one of six musicians whose remit was to inspire things musical in rural areas. String Trio No.1 written for the Dartington Trio dates from 1944 when she was working at the School there. The opening Andante searches seriously for its harmonies with harsh tritones; the second movement, Presto, is much lighter in texture, flitting here and there like a dragonfly above a lake. The third has substantial writing for the cello, most effective in its solitude. The finale has something of a struggle between the instruments and the harmony, co-operating with seeming reluctance in a canon, the whole resolving with triumph at the conclusion.

In 1952 Imogen Holst became Benjamin Britten’s assistant at Aldeburgh, becoming Artistic Director from 1956 to 1977. The arrangement led to deep and lasting friendship with Britten and Peter Pears, Imogen’s grave being behind theirs at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Aldeburgh.

There was less time for composition while she was so busy with the Festival and while she also remained Britten’s assistant. The Fall of the Leaf dates from 1962 and is a set of three short studies for solo cello, so well played by Thomas Hewitt Jones, based on a tune in the Fitzwilliam Virginal book. The title refers to Autumn with its moods encouraged from leaf fall, harvest and melancholy. Holst’s composition conjures up pictures of rain, including the odd drop that catches one unawares, the changing colours of the season and the high winds with their blowing leaves.

Duo for Violin and Piano followed in 1968, a concise work with three short movements. The first and last are quick, again conjuring dragonflies, the middle movement a weightier Poco lento. String Quintet is a late work, from 1982 and was inspired by rivers. ‘Prelude’ is the birth, ‘Scherzo’ is the stream becoming a river and, in her own words quoted in the excellent booklet essay by Christopher Tinker, “…the sudden glitter of sunlight on the water and the sudden splashes of rain.” The finale is a Theme and Variations and paints pictures of the memory of her father. The Theme is in fact the last that Gustav Holst wrote in his notebook, the Variations his different moods as he walked to St Paul’s School along the river.

The musicians are very well recorded in a clear acoustic that is not too reverberant. The quality of the playing is superb and does full justice to the music. Much of the music on this disc has the delicacy of water in Spring or Autumn, and not forgetting those dragonflies. It’s the sort of delicacy that also has strength, the gossamer webs of spiders, which are far more resilient than they seem. The booklet’s photograph seems very fitting. Listening to these recordings has been very rewarding, a tonic for the jaded spirit.

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