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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Savitri - A chamber Opera in one Act [25.19]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Lark Ascending [14.55]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Sinfonietta: Poco Presto [3.33]; Variations [5.14]; Tarantella [4.25]
Jessica Miller (soprano), Kyu Won Han (Bass), Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater
Manhattan Chamber Sinfonia/Glen Barton Cortese
Recorded in the USA 2000. DDD
PHOENIX PHCD 145 [53.26]

It was pleasant surprise to be introduced to a new recording of Holst’s Savitri, and delightful to see some Vaughan Williams on the same CD! Completely unfamiliar names were a further surprise, but did not necessarily bode badly – after all, the more people who promote this music, the better! In actual fact, however, my slight apprehension at discovering that the performers were the completely unknown Manhattan School of Music Chamber Sinfonia and Opera Theater was borne out. Glen Barton Cortese – principal conductor of the aforementioned Sinfonia (about which there was no further information in the sleeve-notes) – conducts, and in Savitri Jessica Miller plays Savitri, Kyu Won Han is Death and Simon O’Neill is Satyavan in a rendition that could most positively be described as an admirable attempt.

It is admittedly a well-nigh impossible task to compete successfully with the two brilliant recordings of that masterpiece that are currently available – the 1983 Hyperion recording under Richard Hickox and the 1965 Imogen Holst recording. However, in comparison this version, recorded in America in 2000, is regrettably dismal. Death’s opening proclamation – perhaps the most thrilling, terrifying and intense opening to any opera – is not electrifying, as Stephen Varcoe makes it in the Hyperion recording. Rather it is rough, hurried and sounds somehow vaguely imprecise. Kyu Won Han – a Korean baritone – has a fairly harsh voice; his words are not particularly clear and have a feeling of inaccuracy about them. He lacks the solemnity and the sombre power that is necessary for Death. Whereas Varcoe’s Death - esoteric-sounding, terrifically powerful and with beautifully precise enunciation - sends shivers down one’s spine, Kyu Won Han creates tension in the listener in case he wobbles off the note. He does not make use of the profound dramatic pauses that both Varcoe and Hemsley (1965 recording) employ. He does not lay deep, compelling emphasis on the word "Death" in the opening bars of the piece as they do, and when talking later with Savitri, he sounds almost mechanical and has no presence whatsoever. Varcoe’s deep, tuneful, vibrant Death can change from being abstruse, mystical and foreboding to serene and tranquil – almost quiet towards the end of the work. This is a transformation that Kyu Won Han cannot effect; his Death is very consistent and unvarying.

Jessica Miller is similarly disappointing – her voice is too breathy and light, and lacks the maturity and ardour of both Baker (1965) and Palmer (1983). Like Death, she also rushes her lines (this recording is 5 or 6 minutes faster than the other two), and a recognisable American accent does come through. Again, important words are not given enough urgency or weight, nor is she moving in the deeply romantic bits. Palmer is a bit brighter than Baker’s grave and deep (almost subdued) but very effectively frightened Savitri. Although Palmer perhaps does not convey completely the tremendous fear that is due to one facing an apparition of Death, yet she does bring out infinite tenderness when calling Satyavan’s name. Miller, throughout the recording, does not imply any great affection – for example, in the poignant and impassioned "I am with thee, / My arms are round thee; Thy thoughts are mine / My spirit dwells with thee" and "Like to a babe in his mother’s robe / Thou are enshrouded in my love", Miller gives little hint of emotion, but hurries through automatically. On a more positive note, however, Miller does reflect the fear of Savitri in the opening section fairly well, and she has a powerful voice, so that the lines "Ah! Death, the just one / Whose word ruleth all / Grant me a boon" are among her best. She is perhaps slightly too powerful: Palmer’s "Welcome Lord! / Thou are called the Just One" is evocatively peaceful and still, whereas Miller does not create any mood of calmness.

Satyavan, Simon O’Neill, is a New Zealand tenor, and again is a far cry from Tear (1965) and Langridge (1983). Whereas Tear sounds young and joyful, strong and virile, and Langridge’s Satyavan, whilst heavier and possibly not as attractive as Tear’s, is still excellent, Simon O’Neill is whining and nasal, with no real feeling. When Langridge especially is most touching in his loving "But thou are pale and trembling: / What ails thee?", O’Neill puts no passion into that significant line at all. Although his words are fairly clear, he, too, seems to have picked up something of an accent, elongating and nasalizing vowels. In addition he has a habit, which becomes increasingly infuriating, of aspirating the "wh" in words such as "who" and "what" – fairly prevalent words in this libretto! His voice also has a slightly harsh and rough, almost crass quality to it. He would perhaps be better suited to less sensitive roles, or to ones requiring a bigger voice – Italian opera, maybe, rather than the delicate balance of an English chamber opera. He reflects Miller and Kyu Won Han in having little changes in emotional intensity, mood or power throughout the piece.

The orchestra and chorus, on the other hand, play quite well and produce a pleasing tone, although the balance between chorus / orchestra and soloists could be adjusted to allow less conflict between the two. Whereas in the Hyperion recording in particular, the orchestra and chorus unobtrusively support the singers, in this recording they are too loud and blatant. The Hyperion and Decca recordings present a unified sound as the soloists, chorus and orchestra come together smoothly and discreetly. Here they almost battle and therefore do not do justice to the score. But the fact that I could listen to this recording dry-eyed (a first for me listening to any recording / performance of Savitri!) is condemnation in itself.

Dismayed by the Savitri, the Vaughan Williams came as quite a relief – this is a fairly accomplished and gratifying performance of The Lark Ascending. Korean violinist Ik-Hwan Bae produces an agreeable sound, with well-articulated trills and far more feeling and emotion than all the soloists put together managed to muster for the Holst. Although perhaps not as evocative as one would have liked, and he does not "soar" quite enough for my liking, Ik-Hwan Bae is still well-poised, accurate and reasonably sensitive with a lyrical air. There is a far better balance between orchestra and soloist than in the Holst, and together they produce a full and fairly rich sound, although both soloist and orchestra could have made more effective use of changes in dynamics. Slightly on the fast side at 14.55, on the whole, it is a pleasingly lilting and poetic endeavour.

Britten’s Sinfonietta op. 1 completes the disc. As with all the pieces on this CD, this was taken at swifter pace than average. The Manhattan Chamber Sinfonia play this inventive and concise piece well. They bring out both its charm and energy effectively, and perform it dynamically and with vivacious rhythmic drive. The lively opening is persuasively portrayed in a vibrant rendition, and the more romantic, lush second movement (strangely enough entitled "Variations" on this CD, instead of its usual Andante Lento) is played tenderly and with feeling. This movement is not as smooth or gentle as it could be, and rather lacks the haunting quality of some of the other recordings of this piece (the 1997 Britten Sinfonia/Daniel Harding one, for instance), yet the pastoral mood is well conveyed. The dark and almost dim sound of the players suits the Tarantella, and this almost dulled tone does not seem to detract from the piece. The lyrical but powerful Sinfonietta is accurately played throughout, with emotion and understanding, yet I still feel that it would have benefited from a bit more fire breathed into it.

The appearance of the disc itself reflects the slightly amateur feel of the performances on it – with adequate and comprehensible – if not particularly erudite or comprehensive – sleeve-notes, and a just slightly homespun looking cover/back. We are spoilt in the wonderful wealth of Chandos and Hyperion recordings of English music. One wonders why the Manhattan School of Music chose to record these particular pieces, which they perform without any glowing merit – competently enough in the case of the Vaughan Williams and Britten but rather disappointingly so for the Holst. Why did they not choose less demanding, or less well-known and already brilliantly recorded pieces instead?

Em Marshall


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