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Holst: The Man and His Music
on 4 March 2013
I have been gradually collecting Tony Palmer's films about various musical heroes of mine, and that for Holst (produced in 2011) is one of his best, despite (or because of?) the many financial difficulties he had to contend with in making it.
From the Cotswolds to Hammersmith, and from Latvia to the Sahara, Palmer manages to evoke the essence of many of the places associated with Holst, but even including India and China. One must, like many other reviewers, query Palmer's use of footage of Nazi concentration camps in some opening scenes, but overall there is a judicious mix of archive and modern footage, interspersed with performances of many of his works.
It is good to hear extracts from little-known works in a variety of genres (bar opera and chamber music), although it is a shame that there is no extract from his Choral Symphony. I was a little disappointed to see Palmer using (presumably) stock footage of the Scottish hills to illustrate a totally different kind of landscape, i.e. Wessex's Egdon Heath; and that he uses a film of the planet Jupiter to illustrate `Neptune' from the Planets. But these are minor quibbles.
I would think that more time in the film is given over to Holst's music than to his tale (maybe 55:45), and that's no bad thing in this instance, with some meaty extracts proffered for our consideration, mostly to positive effect. (It's nice to see Tamas Vasary still conducting with strength.) As regards Holst's tale, his life (unlike his music) is told within a broad chronological framework.
By far the most interesting commentators in the story are Imogen Holst herself (although the review in the BBC Music Magazine seemed to imply that some of the words purportedly spoken by her when she was not herself on screen were done by another) and music critic Stephen Johnson. Indeed, it is a shame that Johnson's critical guide to the Planets is not expanded and included as an extra.
The performances are commendatory with an excellent Royal College of Music Orchestra, but the film also features many music groups around Britain and from around the world. I did wonder why Palmer chose to play `I Vow to Thee My Country' so much, when Holst hated the words that had been attached to his music, but it was very apt that the film itself ends on the original orchestral version.