Times are hard in the classical recording industry, and it's five years since the Ulster Orchestra released a new CD commercially. It is a shame, since the 1980s and 90s saw a steady stream of quality issues emanating from the orchestra's Bedford Street headquarters.
Discs of Hamilton Harty with Bryden Thomson, Stanford with Vernon Handley, and a compendious Debussy and Ravel series with Yan Pascal Tortelier, were all released to widespread critical approval. They put the Ulster Orchestra firmly on the map as a recording body to be reckoned with internationally.
Significantly it was the arrival a year ago of a new principal conductor, American JoAnn Falletta, which signalled a revival in the orchestra's recording fortunes. Crucially Falletta had already cut over a dozen successful records for the Naxos label with the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Naxos followed Falletta to Belfast, with three CDs scheduled to be recorded in the initial year of a rolling contract between the Ulster Orchestra and the company.
A collection of orchestral works by Gustav Holst is the first of these new issues, and it’s been astutely programmed to find a ready niche in an overcrowded classical market. The main item is the ‘Cotswolds Symphony’, completed in the composer’s mid-20s, of which just one other recording is available.
The second movement, a moving elegy commemorating the artist and writer William Morris, is the one usually singled out for attention. The Ulster Orchestra certainly do it justice, with some particularly intense and focused contributions from the violin section, and stirring brass fanfares powering the central climax.
The outer movements elicit playing of impressive elasticity and rhythmic buoyancy, qualities Falletta has been pointedly nurturing since her arrival in Belfast. The wonderful Ulster Hall acoustic plays its part too, especially in the boisterous Scherzo, where brass and woodwind timbres have a warmly alluring glow around them.
The ‘Walt Whitman Overture’ is contemporaneous with the symphony, shares its ebullience, and is another Holst rarity. So too are ‘A Winter Idyll’ and ‘Indra’, both of which Falletta performs, for the first time on record, in their full original versions.
‘Indra’, based on an Indian legend, is by some way the more substantial and interesting of the two pieces. At just under 16 minutes, it’s a fully fledged symphonic poem that builds gradually to a crashing climax, nailed tellingly by Falletta and a clearly fired-up orchestra.
The ‘Japanese Suite’, six short movements totalling ten minutes, dates from the period when Holst was writing his masterpiece ‘The Planets’. The sophistication of Holst the mature orchestrator is evident in the delicate ‘Dance of the Marionette’, where Falletta and her players demonstrate an appealing lightness of touch.
All told, this album paints a picture of an orchestra in robustly healthy and responsive fettle. It’s early days yet in the Falletta era, but the signs are that her crisp, incisive baton technique, and deft balancing of complicated orchestral textures, are already tangibly sharpening the aural impression the Ulster Orchestra makes collectively in performance.
This cleverly planned CD has Falletta’s discriminating fingerprints all over it, and should find a ready place in any self-respecting Holst collection.