The sweet, sweet sound of suffering
BBC SO/Nott/Hagner, Barbican, London
By Anna Picard - 26 February 2006
From the Independent
Simon Holt's Witness to a Snow Miracle - premiered this week by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Jonathan Nott, and violinist Viviane Hagner - tells the story of St Eulalia of Merida, a 13 year-old visionary martyred under Roman occupation in 304 AD. Torn by iron hooks, dragged by her hair and burned alive, Eulalia's violated body was covered by snowfall and a white dove was seen to fly out of her mouth at the moment of her death.
Holt has long been preoccupied with suffering women. Lorca's earthy fatalists dominated his early work. Then along came Emily Dickinson, whose opulent imagination was so at odds with her life, and the murky, murdered heroine of his opera Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? Each has been sympathetically and cleverly drawn, but not until Witness to a Snow Miracle has Holt found so distinctive or distressing a female voice.
With a shimmering canopy of harps, vibraphone, glockenspiel and celesta, brute pizzicato, and a lowing alto flute, the seven short movements of the concerto depict not only the horror of Eulalia's martydom but also the ecstasy of her faith. The soaring, skittering, radiant figures of the solo violin speak in tongues, sob, laugh like a child and sing. Hagner's performance was technically faultless, musically mature, and doubtless aided in its dramatic impact by her girlish appearance. Though I regretted the absence of a long, reflective melody - something that only Thomas Adès seems prepared to risk now - this is one of the most delicately crafted new concertos I have heard in years.