Sāvitri, Gustav Holst’s half-hour long chamber opera, gets far fewer performances than it deserves. It may seem an unlikely blend of English pastoralism and oriental mysticism – the story of Sāvitri, whose love for her husband convinces death not to take him, comes from an episode in the Mahabharata – but it’s one of the quiet masterpieces of 20th-century British music, which can be almost as dramatically effective in the concert hall as it is when fully staged.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s last performance of Sāvitri was nine years ago. This one, conducted by Nicholas Collon, was nominally a straightforward concert version, but a darkened auditorium, judicious lighting and some well-judged entrances and exits gave it a frisson of theatricality. Yvonne Howard (replacing Sarah Connolly, who was ill) was Sāvitri, showing just enough steel and resolve beneath the emollient vocal surfaces to make her character more realistic than merely symbolic, and Robert Murray was her husband, Satyavan. James Rutherford was Death, projecting his lines with persuasive power whether on or off stage, while the CBSO Youth Chorus supplied the wordless female choir.
The opera formed the first half of an all-Holst evening, and his suite The Planets, almost inevitably, made up the second. The performance set off at a tremendous rate, with fiercely incisive playing from the CBSO, which never flagged. But Collon never really found any other gears: everything was brightly lit and a bit too strident; even movements such as Venus and the final Neptune lacked the distance and mystery needed. The Planets may be a brilliant orchestral showpiece, but there’s more to be found in the score than that.