Conductor: Nicholas Collon
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Planets is possibly the most popular and enduring of the orchestral works of Gustav Holst. Based on the astrological properties of the planets to give each of its movements its own flavour and personality, its original title was Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, and this is certainly appropriate as the large stage of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall is absolutely filled with members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). By contrast, the piece that opens this evening is rather different in nature. Sāvitri is a short chamber opera based on characters from the Mahābhārata. This requires only a small orchestra of 12 including strings, flutes and Cor Anglais as well as the three soloists, Sāvitri (Yvonne Howard), her husband Satyavān (Robert Murray) and Death (James Rutherford). The wordless female chorus is provided by members of the CBSO Youth Chorus.
In Sāvitri, Death comes for Satyavān, but the power of her love impresses Death so much that she is offered a boon – anything short of the return of Satyavān. She cleverly asks for life in all its fullness which is granted, but since that is impossible without her husband Death is thwarted and Satyavān awakes as if from a dream, telling us that all – life and death included – is but Maya (Illusion).
In Sāvitri, the orchestra takes second place to the voices, appearing to offer musical punctuation as voices rise and soar during the exchanges. Indeed, the sombre mood is set as the lights go down and, sitting in darkness we hear the approach of Death, as yet offstage, announcing in his unaccompanied baritone that, “I am Death … I am he who leadeth men onward … the gate that opens for all” with Sāvitri’s alarmed response. Later, the lights come up, the orchestra starts to play and the whole story is played out. Rutherford’s voice succeeds in mixing the menace of his approach and the change in his mood as he offers the boon. Howard’s mezzo-soprano is pure and fills the hall, full of Sāvitri’s love for Satyavān. Robert Murray successfully conveys his puzzlement as first he faints away and is then returned, apparently after a dream. The chorus provides occasional enrichment with notes of purity and a delicate quality. The small orchestra is effective, although when all play together melodically, it can slightly overpower the singers.
After an extended interval in which the stage is completely reset for the mammoth orchestra required for The Planets, the main event begins. And in this piece, the orchestra is able to show off its talents as the moods it conveys vary so much. From the loud and menacing Mars, the Bringer of War, to the lighter and dance-like Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, and the eerie and ethereal Neptune, the Mystic, the CBSO is superb. Maybe there is a slight touch of hesitancy from horns on occasion, but this is brushed aside by the overall experience. The ordering of the pieces offers us contrasts, the pastoral nature of Venus, the Bringer of Peace is a welcome relief from the raw power of Mars, whereas Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, and Holst’s favourite movement, conveys the feeling of time marching on. The ending of Neptune, with an unseen ethereal choir fading gradually away, is quite breathtaking as one strains to hear the very last note and is never quite sure whether it is that or silence one hears.
Conductor Nicholas Collon is young but already being hailed as a superb interpreter and communicator, and so it is with this evening’s offering. His style varies to suit the mood of the piece but is never less than precise, if angular. His small movements at times of quiet melancholy as well as expansive ones for the more upbeat sections communicate his intentions clearly, both to orchestra and audience.
As a combination, the choice of these two pieces from Holst’s canon is inspired. Both are performed exquisitely and both allow the CBSO and its guests to show off their range of talents, filling the hall with magnificent music. A memory to be savoured by the capacity audience.
Reviewed on 8 February 2017 | Image: Contributed