Holst’s Sāvitri & Choral Hymns; Grace Williams & Britten – Britten Sinfonia conducted by Mark Elder

Grace Williams
Sea Sketches
Britten
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Gustav Holst
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Third Part)
Sāvitri – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer [sung in English]

Sāvitri – Kathryn Rudge
Satyavān – Anthony Gregory
Death – Ross Ramgobin

Britten Sinfonia Voices

Britten Sinfonia
Sir Mark Elder

Pagrav Dance Company
Urja Desai Thakore (choreographer)

[Choral Hymns – Sally Pryce (harp) & Eamonn Dougan (conductor)]

Various
Pieces for violin, tabla & guitar

Jacqueline Shave (violin), Kuljit Bhamra (percussion) & John Parricelli (guitar)


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 4 May, 2022
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The centrepiece of this tripartite concert was Holst’s chamber opera Sāvitri (1909) based on an episode from the Hindu scriptural text, the Mahabharata, about the eponymous character’s overcoming of Death as an illusion, achieved through steadfast love for her husband Satyavān. Mark Elder’s performance with a dozen musicians of the Britten Sinfonia gave the work a generally quiet, liturgical decorum, the ensemble’s passages discreetly interposed among the sections of dialogue – sung, or indeed often as though chanted, in Holst’s spare setting. 

Amidst that gauze-like sound, Nicholas Daniel’s plaintive solo on the cor anglais registered as a potently dramatic musical event, at the point when Satyavān falls to the ground, apparently surrendering to Death. Although initially unseen, singing behind a black curtain at the back of the Barbican Hall’s stage, Ross Ramgobin declaimed Death’s music firmly and sonorously, and subsequently as he came forwards to confront Sāvitri. Kathryn Rudge started out in the latter role with a palpable, tremulous fear in her voice, but mustered strength and control as she asserted her love for Satyavān. Anthony Gregory made equally eloquent appeals to Sāvitri in turn, sounding as objective and authoritative as Ramgobin’s Death at first, evidently a deliberate ambiguity to make it uncertain as to which of the two were calling to Sāvitri in her reverie at that moment, but modulating into more passionate fervour as he then made the case to Sāvitri that Death is merely an illusion.

The wordless offstage chorus – recalling that at the end of the composer’s The Planets – could have been a touch more ethereal and less sonically present. Dramatic atmosphere, rather than directly mimetic action or representation, was provided by the three dancers of the Pagrav Dance Company, choreographed by Urja Desai Thakore in accordance with the principles of classical kathak dance. Presumably their number was meant to parallel the three characters of the opera, but here they presented a harmoniously ordered sequence of movements and gestures as though moving with one mind and intention, and their billowing black skirts as they rotated in some sequences resembled the Sufi practice of whirling dervishes, with which Western audiences are probably more familiar. 

The opera was prefaced by the four Choral Hymns which make up the third part of Holst’s settings from the Rig Veda. Taking their texts from another Hindu scriptural source, their scoring for female chorus and harp set the composed, spiritual mood for Sāvitri. The BS Voices could have been more unanimous and focussed in the well-known Hymn to the Dawn, but they were even and steadier for the Hymn to Vena, whilst director Eamonn Dougan brought out more idiomatic animation for the Hymn to the Traveller. Sally Pryce’s gossamer cascades on harp for the Hymn to the Waters were evocative, and her contributions elsewhere also shimmeringly effective.

The theme of water had opened the concert’s first section, with the BS strings’ searing account of Welsh composer Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches (1944). Its five movements characterise the sea in different weather conditions or locations, but rather than harking back to Debussy’s La mer in style, or the large washes of string sonority in Elgar or Vaughan Williams’s works for similar ensembles (she studied with the latter), it is Mahler and the late-Romantic vein of Schoenberg that is invoked, especially Verklärte Nacht, also for strings (she had also studied in Vienna). Despite not having the same range of sonorities as a full symphony orchestra, Elder drew out an impressive variety of moods and textures, to fit each idiosyncratic movement, from the bracing, rumbling account of the opening ‘High Wind’, to the soaring Mahlerian intensity of the concluding ‘Calm Sea in Summer’. ‘Breakers’ was notable for its single-minded, strenuous drive, up to the point that its tension was almost comically dissipated near the end; but the pulsing inner notes, ghostly wisps of sound, and yearning viola melody of ‘Channel Sirens’ created a due sense of mystery (if any Debussy was recalled here, it was Sirènes).

Although Frank Bridge and Britten are both also celebrated for water-related compositions (The Sea, and the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes respectively) it was the latter’s prodigious Variations on a theme by his mentor (1937) that concluded the concert’s first third. It received a searching but also humorous and jaunty account, all the composer’s string effects duly observed, and ensemble remaining tight throughout.

The final third comprised a series of pieces for violin, tabla, and guitar, masterminded by Jacqueline Shave who was stepping down as the leader of the BS. Composed (by her or the tabla player here, Kuljit Bhamra) or improvised, and led by her from the violin, they had largely featured on her CD Postcards from Home and collate her and Bhamra’s impressions of Indian music. The violin’s melody was often drawn through its non-Western intervals with a mellow flexibility, given urgency by the hypnotic regularity of Bhamra’s performance on the tabla, and added piquancy by John Parricelli’s support on the guitar. The selection formed a calm, contemplative appendage to the overall concert.

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