Prom 54: Britten, Lambert, Holst, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

This was a young man's Prom: the inventive 18-year-old Britten; the insuppressible Constant Lambert, just into his twenties; and Gustav Holst, just turning 34, The Planets not yet a twinkle in his eye.

This was a young man's Prom: the inventive 18-year-old Britten; the insuppressible Constant Lambert, just into his twenties; and Gustav Holst, just turning 34, The Planets not yet a twinkle in his eye. And, in a nice feat of programming, Nicholas Kenyon brought together three of our most finessed mid-generation singers - Sarah Connolly, John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman - for a late-night performance of Savitri, Holst's all-but anti-opera, riddled with sublime monody and wisps of apologetic fine-lined instrumentation, on the timeless Alcestis-like story, with a Chinese gloss, of the dame who intercedes with Death for the life of her beloved.

Before that, Britten: a compact Sinfonietta (his Opus 1), written as he moved from the enabling Frank Bridge to college studies with John Ireland. It's a chamber piece, full of astonishing surges and flurries and flibbertigibbet orchestration, showing his modernist sympathies of the time: though modernism then meant Lambert, Bliss, Van Dieren, Walton - even Ethel Smyth, whose swirling chamber dexterity this recalls, too. Above all, Stravinsky: the opening feels like Dumbarton Oaks before the Russian had even written it. Mutters and grimaces of swishing clarinet and steely viola; and the chaste-cum-sensual way that Britten draws on two violins, entwining like not one but two larks ascending, before horn and bassoon conjure a proto-Grimesian seascape, bespeak the great composer. Possibly, the Nash Ensemble needed Martyn Brabbins to conduct this, too: there were approximations from doing it unconducted.

Sensual is the word for the Lambert, too: eight poems by the Tang dynasty poet Li Po, set with a delicacy - the composer was then infatuated with a Chinese actress - that matches the succulent tang of the poems. Ainsley's words were exquisitely clear, though the hall fuzzed those sumptuous tones that radio listeners will have caught perfectly. Girls gathering water chestnuts; a raven on his roost; lover's perfume (solo violin) that floats/haunts forever. Satie-esque simplicity; Rubbra-esque rarefaction; a boozy rendezvous like inebriated Finzi; a delayed resolution like coitus interruptus. Stunning.

And so to Holst. I hadn't realised that he reached this refined monodic setting - whiffs of Britten's Curlew River and The Prodigal Son - from a mapped-out three-act Wagner-scale opera called Sita; or that Holst first got his "oriental" twitch in 1890s Scarborough.

You can't get much less bombastic than this. Li Po seems to hover again: vocal lines issued like gossamer strands, or a butterfly's flight. Instruments fluttered like Warlock's Curlew flexing its wings. As Connolly wafted from shy Janet Baker-like folksong via Debussian souterrain to sub-Baroque flute cavortings, one was simply spellbound.

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