Sir Mark Elder’s introduction jokingly referred to a “concert of three halves”, the first third of which began with two British works from the last century for string orchestra, and from two composers who were friends in the 1930s and lived by the sea. Barry’s Grace Williams wrote her Sea Sketches in 1944. Three of its five movements are songful in different ways, while the other two, High Wind and Breakers buffeted the stroller on the South Wales coast rather more. Elder said he had never heard her music before, and how impressive he’d found it. It was greeted by warm applause that said “where has this piece, and its composer, been all our lives?”

Britten Sinfonia
© Benjamin Ealovega (2019)

Ironically, since Williams admitted she found Britten an inhibiting friend for a young composer, his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) followed, and rather showed why. Aged 23, the young man from the east coast added to the great British tradition of string orchestra works, with his dazzling virtuoso writing, matched appropriately enough here by the Britten Sinfonia’s playing. Challenged by Elder’s swift tempo, they caught the sheer fun of the Aria Italiana variation, with its guitar-like pizzicato accompaniment. But they also dug deep for the haunting Funeral March

Holst’s Sāvitri took us east, deriving from the composer’s serious interest in Sanskrit literature. The Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, which Holst himself suggested could preface his short chamber opera, were beautifully sung by the twelve women of the professional Britten Sinfonia Voices, with harpist Sally Pryce, conducted by their director Eamonn Dougan. They also provided the brief but highly evocative wordless contributions to the ensuing opera.

Kathryn Rudge (Sāvitri) and the Pagrav Dance Company
© Milly March

Holst’s opera must have various ways to present it, of which the easiest would be to have the three soloists behind music stands on a concert platform. Here they were liberated to occupy one half of an empty platform, while the dozen players directed by Elder were in the other half. They could act, sombrely attired and without sets, enter and exit at the back of the platform draped full-length in black curtains, behind which the chorus sounded from the next world.

Baritone Ross Ramgobin conveyed both the menace and the dignity of Death, who comes for Satyavān, which Anthony Gregory’s sweet-toned tenor suggests would be a premature occurrence. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, vocally splendid as Satyavān’s wife Sāvitri, begs for his life with a moving (and clever) plea, and Death is defeated. But alongside the characters we saw throughout three dancers from the Pagrav Dance Company, choreographed by Urja Desai Thakore, presented in effect a recounting of the tale in another medium, and of an eloquence that mostly supported the vocal one.

Pagrav Dance Company
© Milly March

After a second interval for another platform rearrangement, and adding amplification kit, violinist Jacqueline Shave was able to join. Tonight was supposed to be her final performance as leader of the Britten Sinfonia, but a Covid infection meant she was not able to prepare and lead her colleagues. But she could play in this rather different “third half”, joined by tabla-player Kuljit Bahmra, and jazz guitarist John Parricelli. So three collaborators from the different backgrounds of Indian music, western classical and jazz, played some short pieces they had created for this instrumental combination. If the concert's tripartite structure did not quite cohere, this finale made an agreeable coda to a long evening, if one stylistically rather off the beaten (Bach)track.