Savitri, Op.25 – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer based on an episode from the Mahabharata
The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32
Savitri – Yvonne Howard
Satyavān – Robert Murray
Death – James Rutherford
CBSO Youth Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 8 February, 2017
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
Holst’s Savitri was given an impressive outing in the spacious design of Symphony Hall, where the lights were low for the opening declamation by Death and only slowly raised on the platform at the entrance of Yvonne Howard (replacing an indisposed Sarah Connolly). Although the composer’s English text was printed in the programme the auditorium remained dark – so one had to rely on the singers’ diction. Luckily, all three were exemplary in this regard, and our concentration and engagement was probably enhanced.
Howard was at her appreciable best; her singing had all the warm tone required in the critical lower registers and there was wonderful freedom and bite above the stave as well. Her colours on words like “cold” and “still” were particularly evocative. Likewise the mellifluous tones of Robert Murray left one wishing that Satyavān gave him a few more opportunities. James Rutherford was certainly an imposing Death, although his generous bass does not have the focus to add intensity to the unaccompanied passages; he sounded better with the orchestral and choral cushion.
The CBSO Youth Chorus made a telling contribution and the small orchestra was clear and cordial in equal measure; one really relished the flutes as they intertwined with the strings. Nicholas Collon judged tempos perfectly, and was singer-friendly almost to a fault: a lovely performance of a rewarding work.
The Planets showed-off the venue’s brilliant acoustic, not least for the distant then fading-away choir at the very end. If ‘Mars’ was, as ever, full of menace and swagger, Collon’s revelation of the peace of ‘Venus’ indicated an uncertain placidity from the outset, only gradually blooming into something more assuring. ‘Mercury’ was skittish and flighty, while, oddly, ‘Jupiter’ suffered a too rapid speed at the start and too solid a pace in the hymnal middle section. ‘Saturn’ was notable for the input of the double basses as well as for the interplay between harps and cellos, with moments foreshadowing the music of Messiaen, and the layers of complexity in ‘Uranus’ received their due measure.