gustav Holst composed a dozen operas. Most of them are early works that have never been performed before, and only one of the others is heard regularly today. But this exception, Sāvitri, is one of the jewels of early 20th-century British music and the best product of Holst’s preoccupation with Indian culture.
One of the great virtues of the one-act work is that it is easy to present in the concert hall. No elaborate staging is required – the story, taken from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, of how Sāvitri thwarts death to save her husband Satyavān, is straightforward, and Holst presents it in a thoroughly economical way. The performance that formed the centerpiece of the Britten Sinfonia concert was prefaced by four of Holst’s choral hymns from the Rig Veda, and presented on the Barbican’s bare platform, with the wordless female choir (the voices of Britten Sinfonia ) out of sight at the back of the stage and three members of the Pagrav Dance Companychoreographed by Urja Desai Thakore, offering a delicate intertwining of silent movement around the tracks.
Somehow, however, in this concert hall space, the emotional impact of the work has dissipated; individual performance – Catherine Rudge was Savitri, Antoine Gregoire Satyavan and Ross Ramgobin Death – everything was fine (although we would have liked to hear more of their words at times), and Marc Aine extracts real dramatic intensity from the 12-piece ensemble, but the magic that Sāvitri can generate from her graceful vocal lines and spare orchestral commentary never happened.
Elder and the strings of Britten Sinfonia had started the concert in three parts with by Grace Williams Sea Sketches – short, atmospheric pieces bringing together a range of modernist influences – and Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, in a performance that emphasized the work’s seriousness more than its youthful exuberance. And to close the evening, the violinist Jacqueline Shaveduring her last concert as leader of the Britten Sinfonia, appeared with the tabla player Kuljit Bhamra and guitarist John Parricelli in a selection of his own tunes that seemed to cross all sorts of musical boundaries: Western and Indian, classical, folk and jazz. Holst, you think, would have approved the merger.