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S & H Concert Review

Delius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst: Nash Ensemble, Jean Rigby, John Mark Ainsley, Roderick Williams, London Voices, Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Wigmore Hall, February 21st 2004 (ME)


The Nash Ensemble’s series of mainly English music, evocatively titled ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ is now into its last few concerts, with many delights having been provided along the way: this evening’s offering was the ensemble’s usual pleasing mixture of the familiar and the unusual, although the first half was perhaps a little too much weighted towards the former – one can, however, imagine that at the planning stage someone must have come up with the idea that in order to persuade audiences to come and hear Sāvitri, it would not be quite enough to have three superb soloists, and they would need to entice with some very well loved pieces to whet the appetite.

Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Summer Night on the River were presented in arrangements by David Matthews, specially composed for the Nash and first heard in 1998. The playing was uncharacteristically rough around the edges here, and I’m not convinced that the kind of thinning out necessary to create this version did much for either the music or the instrumentalists, since very little of Delius’ sense of what Warlock called the ‘contemplative rapture that is tinged with sadness at the transience of spring’ really came through here. Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for Strings found the ensemble in much more confident form, with the string tone in the slow movement especially finely attuned. The first half concluded with a performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in which Marianne Thorsen gave a finely judged reading, exquisitely poised in those difficult passages which suggest the lark’s dizzying ascent, and blending mellifluously with the chamber orchestra in the broader passages: she was given positive support by Martyn Brabbins, who had seemed rather reticent in the earlier pieces.

Holst’s chamber opera Sāvitri is only rarely performed, so it was a treat to find it programmed here: reading around the work, the general flavour of commentary seems to be that it is a delightful period piece which flies in the face of all the Wagnerian idolatry present at the time of its composition, but it seems to me to be much more than that -with its fervent declamations, passionate near – soliloquies, intense level of emotion and sweeping lines it owes very little to Holst’s contemporaries but looks instead to Mahler and beyond him to Korngold. As with much of the latter composer’s work, one either loves Sāvitri or loathes it, but if, like me, you have a soft spot for works like Die Tote Stadt, you would probably love it. Holst studied Indian literature and philosophy to a high level, and the piece is based on The Mahabharata: it’s a straightforward tale in which a man is taken away by death, who then grants him his life in response to the fervent pleadings of his wife. A sort of eastern Orfeo, if you like, with the gender roles reversed.

The piece is beautifully set for the ideal combination of bass-baritone, tenor and soprano, and you could hardly have asked for more than the soloists here gave us. Roderick Williams is the possessor of one of the most sonorous baritone voices around today: those who are familiar with René Pape would recognize a strong similarity, and he was unforgettably commanding in death’s sombre introduction ‘I am the law that no man breaketh / I am he who leadeth men onward…’ as well as ideally touching in ‘Thine is the holiness’ and ‘Sāvitri, glorious woman!’ Jean Rigby gave a characteristically committed performance as the heroine, her warm, tremulous tones perfect for the devoted wife who succeeds in beseeching Death for the life of her beloved, and she rose to great heights in her passionate plea – you can’t help but think of them as Plutone and Orfeo here, and although ‘Art thou the Just One?’ is hardly ‘Possente Spirto,’ when it is sung like this it succeeds in persuading us, as well as Death, that life is worth living. The smallest part is that of the husband, and it was sung with ringing tone and poetic declamation by John Mark Ainsley: ‘Love to the lover’ is probably the most well known section of the work, and he made the most of it.

London voices, directed by Terry Edwards, made a positive contribution in the brief choral parts, although personally I could do without those rather vague sounds in the background, and Martyn Brabbins elicited beautifully phrased, highly committed playing from the ensemble. As ever, a thought – provoking evening which sent me back to the music to enjoy it anew: the last in the series, on Saturday March 20th, features Lisa Milne singing Quilter and Ireland, as well as performances of the Vaughan Williams D major Quintet of 1898 and Elgar’s Piano Quintet: obviously, not to be missed if you enjoy English music – or even if you think you don’t, since it is part of the remit of the Nash Ensemble to inform our tastes as well as to entertain.


Melanie Eskenazi




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