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. . . but I wish they'd used a large choral force.
My primary interest in this CD was the recording of the relatively recently re-discovered (1984) major choral work "The Cloud Messenger." From Holst's "India" period, this is a stunningly beautiful "painting" of the Khalidasa 6th Century A.D. lyric poem, "Meghaduta" ("Cloud Messenger"), the lament of an exiled yaksa who is pining for his beloved on a lonely mountain peak. When, at the beginning of the monsoon, a cloud perches on the peak, he asks it to deliver a message to his love in the Himalayan city of Alaka. Most of the poem consists of a description of the landmarks, cities, and terrain on the cloud's route to Alaka, interspersed with admonishments to the cloud to "Tarry not!" It is only at the end that we are finally aware of the message itself -- one intended to comfort the yaksa's wife in her loneliness.
I had the privilege of singing the U.S. premiere of this work in 1996 with Masterworks Chorale in San Mateo, CA, a chorus of about 150 auditioned singers. This work needs such a large choral force, and a conductor who can deal with the inherent drama in the text. We had both, and the performance was a stunning success. (It was the final work on a program that opened with Debussy's "La damoiselle Elue" for women's voices and mezzo-soprano and soprano soloists; and Brahms' "Alto Rhapsody" for men's voices and mezzo-soprano soloist. "The Cloud Messenger" also includes a mezzo-soprano soloist.)
My biggest complaint with this recording is the dynamics. The entire work seems to be performed at about mf+, occasionally venturing into f and mp. Unfortunately, this doesn't do justice to the drama. The opening, for example, needs to grow from the first ppp gentle raindrops, building as the cloud builds in strength, to a glorious ff choral introduction of the main character, the cloud: "O Thou, who com'st from heaven's king! scion of a noble race! who wearest wondrous forms at will!"
There are parts of this work that beg for a lush warm sound; what we hear on this recording is the British "boy choir" sound in the treble range, while the men have a warmer (albeit somewhat watered down) tone. This is a highly sensuous work, full of luscious ripe sensual imagery: "Where e'er thou goest, lonely wives, who pine in solitude with close-bound hair, will arise and go along the road. Thou bringest home their absent husbands, who will loosen their tresses and fill their hearts with joy!" The "flat" sound of pre-pubescent boys just doesn't do this music, or mature text, justice.
That said, however, this is an important recording of a little-known work. You'll get the feeling of the piece, a sense of the promise. Let's hope that a large chorus paired with a sensitive conductor will have an opportunity at another recording of this in the not-too-distant future (Atlanta? Chicago?).
Contrast this with "The Hymn of Jesus" -- Hickox fares much better with this material, playing up the dance rhythms (Holst knew what he was doing -- at the climax of the piece, the words are: "Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing.") It really is a first-rate performance of this work.
Other works deserving special mention are "Dirge for Two Veterans," in which one can hear hints of "Mars" from "The Planets"; "Ode to Death," a setting of Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which contains allusions to "Saturn." The Four Partsongs on the second disk are among Holst's earliest works, written in 1894, when he was barely 20 yrs old and in his second year at the Royal College of Music; and the Choral Fantasia is among his later choral works, written in 1931.
Highly recommended, even with its flaws.