Sinfonietta, Op.1
Eight Poems of Li-Po

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)

London Voices (women)

Nash Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 25 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Judging by the crowds streaming out of the Albert Hall upon my arrival to this late-night Prom there was a more than a respectable size of audience to hear the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra perform at the early concert. Just for once, thanks to a swift platform change and a shortish programme, it would have been possible to hear this British music concert and also avoid being marooned in Kensington. Those, the vast majority of course, who chose not to stay on, missed a real gem – one of the very best Proms of the season. Furthermore, I wondered about the whereabouts of all the anorak-wearing British music enthusiasts (of which I am a proud member) – those that go on year after year about the lack of ‘home-grown’ music, those that ambush the Proms Director with cries of Bridge, Bax and Moeran…

If ever the Nash Ensemble gets around to giving a less than excellent performance it will surely make the national press. Somehow its members always manage to lift every piece they play – some great, some good, some not so good – into a new realm, where its necessary to take stock and think again. I have never been over-fond of Britten’s Sinfonietta – startlingly precocious certainly, but at the expense of pretty much anything else! Yet this (non-conducted) account was so rhythmically tight, so full of sparkle, wit and feeling – the violin duet at the beginning of the second movement was quite ravishing – that the piece at notched itself up on this writer’s Brittenometer.

Continuing the Proms’ East-West theme, Constant Lambert’s Eight Poems of Li-Po are at least original in their inspiration, growing as they did out of the composer’s infatuation with the Chinese-American actress Anna Way Wong (1905-61) whose career in silent films was at its height in the mid 1920s. Originally conceived as works for voice and piano, these tiny songs were later arranged for an ensemble of eight players (string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe and clarinet) giving an almost Ravelian delicacy to the harmonies and textures. John Mark Ainsley, who is totally incapable of making anything but a beautiful sound, sang them with great eloquence and feeling, the quiet passion of “With a Man of Leisure” and “On the City Street” being particularly attractive. The Nash’s accompaniment, this time under Martyn Brabbins, was a model. Let’s hope that Lambert’s centenary in 2005 provides some focus on his small but fascinating output.

2004 sees the 70th anniversary of the death of Holst. Sāvitri is a very peculiar piece, make no mistake. In this performance, the daring nature of much of the writing – long stretches of unaccompanied solo lines, the slightly unnerving combination of Eastern-sounding melodies turning themselves into English folksong and the sparing and hugely imaginative use of the 12-piece orchestra – came over marvellously. Much of Sāvitri is ravishingly beautiful – particularly breathtaking was a passage halfway through, a dialogue between Death (the imposing Christopher Maltman) and Sāvitri (Sarah Connolly emerging with blazing colours) accompanied by a single, low pedal-note and a flute counter-melody. For once the wide-open spaces of the RAH served a useful purpose for what is in effect chamber music.

The women of London Voices (the one less than first-rate ingredient of the concert, the high soprano line causing a problem here and there) were placed high to the right of the organ. Death stood directly in front of the same instrument and the occasional off-stage lines of the other two characters (John Mark Ainsley was again excellent as Satyavan) carried to great effect throughout the hall. The diction of these three remarkable singers was perfect – the text was in the programme, but every word was crystal clear. A striking performance that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

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