Friday, August 01, 2008

Aldeburgh Festival

No.61, June 13 – 29 began with a stinker and ended with a bang. Things here are changing; some of the almost derelict buildings adjacent to the concert hall at Snape are being developed into space for dressing rooms, a 340-seater concert room and rehearsal rooms - £15 million has already been raised. Also Thomas Adès ‘Die Frist ist um’ (ref. Flying Dutchman ‘the time is up’) after ten years. He has been performing less and less and has relied on the help of an assistant director, the composer John Woolrich, two of whose composition were performed this June, one of them the premiere of a Violin Concerto. Adès’ advertised new work was not ready in time but he piano-partnered Steven Isserlis in a good programme; Sonatas by Debussy, Poulenc, and Schumann’s A minor Violin Sonata No.3 in a transcription by Isserlis; this is the late work that Clara forbad performances of, on the grounds that its composer was of unsound mind at the time, which he was, it is a relentlessly striving, nerve-wracking sonata that only relaxes at the very end. Fine playing. Adès also directed the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in his own Living Toys and works by Ligeti, Gerald Barry and Kurtag.

Gyorgy Kurtag was the featured composer this year and we suffered (in both senses of the word) a dozen of his wispy works. Some managed to derive some satisfaction for these but most of us failed to find them attractive, inventive, inspired or even worthwhile. Kurtag was born 82 years ago and it was a sight to see him and his equally venerable wife Marta, like some Derby and Joan, at an upright (amplified) piano playing away at the wisps, interspersed with some much appreciated Bach transcriptions.

I was congratulated three times on having missed the opening festival salvo, a stage piece An Ocean of Rain by Yanis Kiriakides, Greek, born 1969, which the Sunday Times critic said was unspeakably awful and drove my Telegraph colleague almost to apoplexy. Just one performance.

Director-delegate of the festival is the justly renowned French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who (June 14) also conducted the Britten Sinfonia in thoroughly acceptable performances of Haydn’s delightful Symphony No. 22, Ives The Unanswered Question with Kurtag’s answer to it entitled Ligatura, the rare Three Piece for Chamber Orchestral by Schoenberg (1910) and Webern’s early string orchestral Five Pieces; after the interval came an excellent Coronation Concerto with Aimard as soloist-director. He also gave a piano recital playing rather too emphatically most of The Art of Fugue interspersed with (yes, you’ve guessed it) Kurtag, nine more wisps.

Before accepting the Directorship Aimard sent for all the festival programmes – which is good. But when asked by a journalist what his attitude to Britten was he (allegedly) replied; “Neutral” – which doesn’t sound so good. In fact, many of us regulars consider that not enough music of the Master is heard at the festivals. The tally this June was ten works, four of them almost as wispy as Kurtag.

Highlights? A masterly Diabelli Variations, Beethoven as to the manner successfully acquired, by Stephen Kovacevich. The pianist had a stroke not long ago but his art seems only to have deepened still further. There were enjoyable string quartet programmes given by the (French) Modigliani, the Badke and the Belcea, the latter with Imogen Cooper for an invigorating Trout. Northern Sinfonia played a noble Schumann 3 (the Rhenish) directed by Thomas Zehetmair with some Schubert songs orchestrated by Webern and one with Britten tickling the Trout.

One enjoyable trip to the flicks was to see two Barry Gavin films featuring A.L. (Bert) Lloyd 1908-82, a remarkable man who was a whaler, broadcaster, scholar, singer, journalist, folk-song collector (collaborator with Vaughan Williams, no less.) His programme on The Origins of Polyphony is such a seminal and enjoyable item that the BBC has not revived it! One film showed Lloyd retracing Bartok’s steps in Eastern Europe collecting songs (wonderful peasant wedding scene); the other was a personal memoir.

The festival ended with a concert by the hard-working and virtuosic City of Birmingham Symphony that consisted, after the obligatory Kurtag wisp, of two British masterpieces; Britten’s Cello Symphony and Walton’s Symphony No.1. Edward Gardner earned his spurs directing, with suitable expertise and tension, exemplary performances. Yes, the Britten is gritty, quite hard work for the ears and the brain but rewarding. Both works were written at a time of great personal turmoil. Walton has said that the symphony relates to his tempestuous liaison with the Baroness Irma Doernberg but what was worrying Britten in 1960? Shall we ever know?

I stayed two weeks in Aldeburgh and went to three-quarters of the events (and was one of them; I gave a talk about Britten and Tippett), skipping some that I knew I would not enjoy. Curious, but I find that some of my colleagues seem to employ double standards. When I started writing reviews there were some ageing Canute-like critics who seemed to want to stem the tide of ‘modernism’, senior writers such as Frank Howes of the Times, and Richard Cappell of the Telegraph. I don’t want to stem the tide but I don’t necessarily want to swim in it. Whereas nowadays many critics coo at every new work that comes along, I demand a minimum of melody, something that I can relate to and recognise if it should happen to recur. Music is the art I love best and I hate not enjoying most of the new music. Such a lot of it recalls the Emperor’s New Clothes and is the result of a lack of professionalism.

I suppose it was ever thus. But there are exceptions: Weir, Turnage, Adams and (if the piece lasts less than ten minutes) Taverner. Above all music must have passion and imagination, not just confirm to fashion. And Stravinsky once said “Sincerity is a sine qua non, which however in itself guarantees nothing.”

Typical of music today is a story about the composer Sciarino. He was heard to say: “Pollini talked about my music recently on the radio He said my music has passion – I’ll kill him.”


John said...

You can't have too much Taverner, but I suspect you mean Tavener...!

Dan Johnson said...

That third Schumann sonata is one of my favorite R Sch pieces, and woefully under-recorded. The best disc I know of is by the fantastic Isabelle Faust with Silke Avenhaus on piano.