This evening’s striking concert initiated the first of a series with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales exploring the theme of ‘creation’ (scientific and theological) expressed in music. Indeed, they will be preparing to perform Haydn’s famous work of the very same name in three weeks' time. There were two grand works tonight separated by almost one hundred years and a twenty-minute interval: Holst’s The Planets Suite and the première of Mark Bowden’s A Violence of Gifts for orchestra, chorus, and soprano and baritone soloists. The programming of these two compositions set each other off well, particularly in the composers’ variety of textures and timbral colours which were at the forefront of both works. In addition, Bowden’s writing for the soloists felt at times rather Brittenesque or ‘Tippett-ish’ which, deliberate or otherwise, again placed it well against Holst’s own monumental contribution to the British canon.

Martyn Brabbins © Sasha Gusov
Martyn Brabbins
© Sasha Gusov

Bowden’s composition is so-called as it refers both to the chemical theatricality (to put it mildly) of the origins of the universe and the ‘gifts’ contained therein. In two halves, Part One looks back on the moment of creation whilst Part Two looks ahead to ‘A moon. Seasons [and] Tides.’ Bowden’s music is, as one might expect given the subject matter, dark, pregnant, turbulent, sparkling and brooding. His treatment of Owen Sheers’ new text is imaginative, at one point interweaving two long stanzas for soprano and baritone, respectively, in order to set parallel lines and words in relief. There were memorable moments peppered throughout, but the most moving and poised was surely during the last few minutes, as the final three lines of Sheers’ poem was divided, repeated and staggered between soloists Williams, Atherton and the chorus. Both the soloists and BBC NOW Chorus handled the challenging lines expertly, sensitively and with a variety of shades and colours. This is an evocative composition that would, I wager, certainly repay re-listening. 

Following this, BBC NOW and Martyn Brabbins executed Holst’s astrologically-founded work with clear familiarity and gusto. They were clearly in their element. Mars was unyieldingly driven and exhilarating; there was beautiful blending from the winds – particularly French horns – in Venus and a gentle treatment of Holst's metric displacement (later repeated in Saturn). It is furthermore (and not for the first time) a testament to this large orchestral ensemble that they behaved so seamlessly as a single unit, particularly in Mercury, during which the thread of flourishing figurations was passed around unbroken. Saturn was paced and tense, and Neptune was equally executed with a simmering, sotto voce intensity. An impactive performance that warranted the standing ovation it received.