Friday 6 May 2022

Crossing cultural boundaries: Britten Sinfonia placed Holst's Indian-inspired opera Sāvitri at the centre of an intriguing evening of Anglo-Indian collaborations

Holst: Savitri - Kathryn Rudge & Pagrav Dance in rehearsal - Britten Sinfonia (Photo Milly March)
Holst: Sāvitri - Kathryn Rudge & Pagrav Dance in rehearsal - Britten Sinfonia (Photo Milly March)

Grace Williams: Sea Sketches, Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Holst: Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Sāvitri; Kathryn Rudge, Anthony Gregory, Ross Ramgobin, Kuljit Bhamra, John Parricelli, Jacqueline Shave, Pagrav Dance Company, Urja Desai Thakore, Britten Sinfonia Voice, Britten Sinfonia, Eamonn Dougan, Mark Elder; Barbican Centre

A wonderfully daring evening, placing Holst's idiosyncratic operatic masterpiece at the centre of an evening that mined the work's English and Anglo-Indian themes.

Of Gustav Holst's eight operas, only one Sāvitri retains anything like a hold on the repertoire. I first saw it in 1978 when Janet Baker sang the title role with Scottish Opera in a triple bill with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and a new opera by Edward Harper. This points to the problem with Sāvitri, like Rider's to the Sea by his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams both operas are difficult to place in a programme.

For their performance of Holst's Sāvitri at the Barbican Centre on Wednesday 4 May 2022, the Britten Sinfonia came up with the idea of a tri-partite programme which explored aspects both of the the work's Englishness and its mix of English and Indian culture. First, Sir Mark Elder conducted the Britten Sinfonia in Grace Williams' Sea Sketches and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, then Eamonn Dougan conducted the women of Britten Sinfonietta Voices and harpist Sally Pryce in Holst's Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (third part).

Holst's Sāvitri followed, with Kathryn Rudge as Sāvitri, Anthony Gregory as Satyavān and Ross Ramgobin as Death, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, plus three dancers from the Pagrav Dance Company choreographed by Urja Desai Thakore. Then, after a second interval, the Britten Sinfonia's long-time leader Jacqueline Shave joined her trio, Kuljit Bhamra (percussion) and John Parricelli (guitar) for a selection of their pieces for violin, tabla and guitar, giving us an entirely different Anglo-Indian cultural boundary crossing.

Holst: Savitri - Pagrav Dance in rehearsal - Britten Sinfonia (Photo Milly March)
Holst: Sāvitri - Pagrav Dance in rehearsal - Britten Sinfonia (Photo Milly March)

The evening was intended partly as a farewell to Shave, who is retiring after 17 years. Unfortunately, COVID meant that she was not able to rehearse the first two parts of the programme, and the Britten Sinfonia was led by Marcus Barcham Stevens, but she was back on-stage and in cracking form for the final part.

The result was, admittedly, a somewhat unwieldy programme but its heart was certainly in the right place. We began with Grace Williams' Sea Sketches, written in 1944 for the BBC Welsh Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales). Williams was a pupil of RVW, part of a remarkable female generation studying with him as his other students included Gustav Holst's daughter Imogen, Elizabeth Maconchy and Dorothy Gow. But Williams also studied in Vienna with Egon Wellesz (who has studied with Schoenberg). This mix is apparent in her music, her Welshness, her English training and her interest in music beyond these isles. The five-movement suite began vivid and vigorous with High Wind and the music rather invoked Benjamin Britten, with lots of strong textures. Sailing Song was a lilting melody with ripples of disturbance underneath (clearly the seas in South Wales where Williams lived were never entirely quiet). Channel Sirens was eerily haunting, with a strong pull in the music from Continental Europe. With much of Williams writing in the suite you felt that whilst the music might not be completely Continental, there was a distinct Offshore feeling as compared to much English writing at the time (again something that Britten's music echoes). Breakers was vivid and fast, with some fabulous brisk string writing and we ended with Calm Sea in Summer, lyrical with lovely textures gradually dying to a murmuring.

As with much of Williams' music this was finely constructed and imaginatively written, you wondered why on earth you had not heard it before. This was music of distinct, strong personality and whilst the subject matter might be one that was covered in other places, here the writing was never obvious. More please.

We followed this with Britten's 1937 Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, his tribute to his teacher written for the Boyd Neel Orchestra to premiere at the Salzburg Festival. It is a dazzling piece, an Introduction and theme followed by ten variations which take both the orchestra and the audience on a striking journey, as each variation was intended to represent an aspect of Bridge's personality. Elder and the orchestra clearly enjoyed both the kaleidoscopic aspects of the music and the technical challenges that Britten set them. Many of the variations had a wonderful pizazz and bravura to them, yet others brought out the lyrical melancholy. And yet. As with much of Britten's early music, I found that it was harder to discover the heart of the work underneath the surface brilliance and sheer cleverness.

After the interval we first heard Holst's third set of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. As with much of Holst's mature output, there is an economy, clarity and austerity to the music but there is passion there too, for those willing to take the music on its own terms. Eamonn Dougan drew some superbly otherworldly textures from the singers and harp, with moments where time seemed suspended (and yes, The Planets were not far away), bringing out the exoticism and distinctness of Holst's writing. 

Holst himself suggested the Rig Veda hymns as a prelude to Sāvitri (the opera has no introduction, it starts in media res), but it seemed a shame that a way could not have been found to incorporate them into the overall presentation. As it was, after applause Dougan and the singers trooped off back stage (where they stood unseen for Sāvitri), the harp was removed and the new performers came on, the stage reset.

For Sāvitri, Elder and the 12 players from the Britten Sinfonia (nine strings plus two flutes, Thomas Hancox and Sarah O'Flynn, and cor anglais, Nicholas Daniel) were stage left, with the three dancers from Pangrav Dance Company (Meera Patel, Mira Salat, Parbati Chaudhry) stage right with the singers. Each singer was separate, with their own spot and inevitably for much of the opera the focus was on Kathryn Rudge singing the title role. It is on her that the piece rests. Holst's writing is concise and compressed in many ways, the work begins with Sāvitri calling her husband's name, unaccompanied and for much of the time Holst was not frightened of having the voices unaccompanied, so that the instruments when the came in formed a distinct tone colour rather than being part of the accompaniment. Holst's sound world was very much influenced by the bi-tonality and use of unusual scales that intrigued and absorbed him. In many ways he was a cerebral composer, yet his music can move greatly.

Kathryn Rudge was a warm and passionate Sāvitri, singing with a beautifully shapely sense of line. Her commitment and care was never in doubt, yet there was a slight feeling of the performance being lost in space. Placed on the relatively extreme stage right, some way back and barely moving, her performance was at times at too much of a distance. This meant that the all-important words did not come over. You could admire and appreciate, but were not quite drawn in. No stage director was credited, which was perhaps a mistake.  The Barbican Hall is not quite idea for this music and having the orchestra so prominent meant the singers were unable to come out to us. I longed to get closer.

Anthony Gregory was a finely lyrical Satyavān, a relatively small yet important role and Gregory brought a superb sense of line as well as a beautiful otherworldliness to it. Ross Ramgobin was a wonderfully firm Death, implacable yet not overly threatening with a lovely definiteness to the performance, and finely dignified in defeat.

The three dancers were there from the beginning, and moved around the singers creating an entirely distinct effect. This was a daring and imaginative concept, and Urja Desai Thakore's choreography was fascinating, using Kathak traditions yet responding to very English music. Pagrav means 'the sound of feet' and the sound of the dancers' bare feet did indeed form a lovely counterpoint to the music. The result was very much an Anglo-Indian synthesis, there was no way that Holst's music was anything other than what it was, yet the performance brought out his sense of the other, the otherworldly. This was a one-off performance, but it would be lovely if a way could be found to develop it into a full staging, I thought the results would be wonderful indeed.

Elder and the members of the orchestra played the music as if it was chamber music, which it is really, and the results were completely magical, seductive, eerie and disturbing. Performing the piece was definitely an imaginative risk worth taking.

Then after a second interval we welcomed Jacqueline Shave with Kuljit Bhamra and John Parricelli, whose experience combined Western classical with Indian classical, jazz, folk and much more. Whilst Shave seemed to be the leading creative element, we heard music written by each of the three performers. The result was not a particular style, not so much a synthesis as syncretic, with different elements existing together. Shave wrote much of her contribution on a Hebridean island, yet we had Bhamra's contribution on tabla and more, responding to Shave's folk-inflected melodies with distinctly Indian classical rhythms, and Parricelli weaving jazz and other harmonic elements into the mix. The results were distinctive and very engaging.

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