New Bowden Oratorio Fails to Match a Superb Performance of The Planets

 Holst, Mark Bowden:  Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins (conductor),. St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 18.4.2015 (PCG)

Mark Bowden: A Violence of Gifts (2015) [world première]
The Planets, Op.32


As I have pointed out in several reviews of CDs over the years, Holst’s orchestral showpiece suite The Planets is a work that presents several problems in performance, not least in the matter of balance between individual instruments and sections. But this reading under Martyn Brabbins was superbly played by the expanded BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and these problems of balance simply did not seem to exist. To take just a few examples, the celesta solo in Mercury which can often recede into the background came through loud and clear thanks to some extremely delicate string playing; the chorus in Neptune was placed offstage in accordance with Holst’s instructions, but at the same time remained clearly defined in the hall; in the same movement the harp glissandi at the end, marked pppp, hovered as they should on the very brink of audibility; the bass oboe, always a matter for concern in its brief solo passages in Saturn and Neptune, had a beauty of tone that I have rarely heard before from an instrument that can at best be described as recalcitrant; and the timpani interjections in Uranus came across with crystal clarity without any suspicion of smudging. Best of all, the tenor tuba solo in Mars, so often played ineffectively on a too-smooth euphonium, bellowed across the whole orchestra with the bellicose stridency that Holst so clearly expected, and Phil Goodwin well deserved his solo call at the end. The audience cheered the players and conductor to the rafters, and this was indeed a very special performance – as can be heard by those listening live on Radio 3 or during the next month on the BBC i-player.

Before the interval we heard the world première of Mark Bowden’s A Violence of Gifts, and it has to be observed that (apart from a roar of cheering for the composer coming from the rear area of the stalls) the audience’s appreciation was no more than polite. The intentions of what I suppose we should call a ‘mini-oratorio’ were good, a complement to the Holst in its theme of creation and evolution of life, but the results were a decidedly mixed success. After a primeval opening emerging from darkness and Rheingold­-like blackness, the chorus entered with a series of multi-lingual glossolalia which might perhaps have recalled Karl Jenkins in one of his more adventurous moods, but seemed more to be influenced by the choral part of Tippett’s The Vision of St Augustine with orchestral splashes of light and colour. But the real problem, as with Tippett’s even more extended oratorio The Mask of Time, came with the text and the composer’s reaction to it.

The poems by Owen Sheers were worthy in themselves if somewhat prolix, but some of the lines seemed to me at any rate to defy meaningful musical setting. To take one example:

And in its history,

        the annihilation of stars,

        a diaspora of carbon

        and a chemical journey…

Now words like these, if they are to be effective in the context of the concert hall, really need to be heard by the audience so that they can be clearly comprehended. Roderick Williams did his best, and his words in places came through loud and clear; but at other times, as in the passage quoted, Bowden’s heavy orchestration more or less drowned out his burnished tones from where I was sitting, only a few rows back in the stalls – although the BBC broadcast may well have made this less evident. Elizabeth Atherton, with her Tippett-like melismata verging on the brink of coloratura, managed to get even fewer of her words across and showed some signs of strain in the higher passages of the part that Bowden had provided for her. There was no real fusion of text and music that would have unified the whole, and in places Bowden rendered the words even more obscure by some false accentuation, as when “witness” and “release” were both stressed on the first syllable. One was left with the feeling that the poetry was more effective when read than when sung.

The most effective section of the music, with a real emphasis on violence (the title of the work came from this movement), was the section entitled Theia which opened the second part of the ‘oratorio’; but even there the emphasis on percussion and brass drowned the efforts of the strings and woodwind, no matter how hard they were evidently working. In the transition into the final movement, the long-drawn orchestral chords were too long extended; and at the end of the same movement the quiet choral harmonies drew attention to the parallels with Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, similarly scored for soprano and baritone soloists with chorus, but only made one realise how much more effective were the older composer’s contemplations on the similar theme of exploration even when developed over a longer time-span. In general however the second part of the work was more impressive than the first, and the quiet ending wove a sense of magic that was alas lacking elsewhere.

In an interview before the performance, the composer told Nicola Haywood-Thomas that he had been contemplating the work for several years and had been inspired by the BBC Welsh choral and orchestral forces (he is currently the orchestra’s composer in residence). That being the case, it seemed perverse that he neglected the two principal strengths of his artists: the firmness and security of the chorus in chordal passages, and the warmth and richness of the strings, who were asked to do little more than provide atmospheric flourishes and effects alternating with sustained harmonies. The performers did the very best they could with the material provided, but I am afraid that their efforts were generally not rewarded; this was very much a case of a good idea which failed to make the impact that the material really deserved.


Paul Corfield Godfrey


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