Friday, July 10, 2009


When Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new director of the Aldeburgh Festival was asked by a journalist what his reaction to the music of Benjamin Britten was, he answered “Neutral”. I ask you, does that bode good? Isn’t it rather like appointing as director of Bayreuth one who doesn’t much care for Wagner? Mind you, Aimard the pianist gave a superb performance of the Ravel Concerto for piano, left hand. And he did a fine interview with Elliott Carter.

Carter was present and warmly acclaimed – he is 101, the oldest composer around, a genial lovely guy. But his music is not very listener-friendly, not a melodic fragment within hearing distance, too cerebral ever since his excellent Cello Sonata and first String Quartet composed some sixty years ago. There was also an interesting film shown about him and his music; Boulez and Barenboim testified to his greatness; so I listened hard, but alas without even a soupçon of pleasure or comprehension. 15 works of his were played during the Festival (I was there June 12 – 23) and there was a similar number of works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle which meant that listeners who like a melodic fragment or two were disappointed. I remember Sir Harry saying on the radio once: “I’m not in the entertainment business”. True, he aint. But the audience applauded and it was great to have him there. The only piece I enjoyed was his orchestral work An Imaginary Landscape (1971), wild, exciting, with a few scraps of melody and accompanied by a hefty storm raging outside. But note the date; a fairly old work.

Talking around confirmed my view that what Aldeburgh audiences like best is congenial chamber music, classics, string quartets; they were thin on the ground this year. We had 4 Haydn Quartets, 2 of old Ludwig, and the Schubert Quintet but not a note of Mozart.

New works; from Sir Harry a mini-opera The Corridor, yet another Orpheus piece given in this new revamped Hoffmann building. Two singers, Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore were the tragic lovers, a vivid portrayal of the moment when Orpheus takes that fatal backward glance. The six players sat in a line, representing the Shades; a new touch was that Eurydice talked/sang to them. As the first of a two part show Padmore sang 7 songs in Semper Dowland, semper dolens with six instrumentalists, slightly but lovingly tarted up by Sir Harry. The premieres of Elliott Carter were Fratribute, On Conversing with Paradise and Sistribute the latter a work for piano, played in an exciting recital by Croatian Tamara Stefanovich together with the Bartok Bagatelles, Haydn Sonata 46 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Really good playing. All Britten’s songs with piano were sung, the most brilliantly by tenor (Michelangelo) Allen Clayton who is surely going to be a big name.

18 works by Britten but no opera, no quartets, no concertos, no orchestral piece. Seems that Aldeburgh can spend millions on new buildings but not a few thousands on Britten. Shame!

Aimard directed a pleasantly whacky evening on June 13, called Collage –Montage. For the first time at Aldeburgh there were played single movements of larger works (remember the BBC’s Music in Miniature): Bartok and Beethoven quartets, Schubert and Stockhausen jumbled consecutively together, a Carter solo bassoon piece, a Bach violin fugue and bits of Kurtag’s Jatekok; Aimard, the Diotima String Quartet, and the Haffner Windquintet were on the stage all the time and gradually items overlapped, the evening ending with the whole lot playing together in an Ives-like mishmash of sound. Very entertaining.

Ravel shone in a memorable programme given by Anthony Marwood (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello) and Thomas Adès (piano) whose new piece Lieux retrouvés proved to be a sort of trio in four movements, music that made more sense and pleasure than his usual. Janacek’s Violin Sonata, & Fauré’s G minor Cello Sonata were topped off by a idiomatic and grand performance of Ravel’s masterly Piano Trio.

Finally, let me mention an enjoyable evening played by the Pears-Britten Orchestra. It was stimulating to see a band of young players enjoying themselves and delighting an audience. Their conductor was Antonello Manacorda, founder of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, quite a show-off but he certainly made the boys and girls play within an inch of their lives. Bach-Webern, Haydn 90, Bartok Divertimto and Mother Goose. So there was quite a lot to enjoy at Aldeburgh; and quite a lot, not to.

Carter and Aimard, photo by Malcolm Watson

1 comment:

Duncan said...

"Collage-Montage" was my first ever visit to Aldeburgh, and, having spotted you from a distance (in a magnificent jacket - my compiments), I've been waiting for your verdict, and I agree with the description "pleasantly whacky". It was a good idea - I'm not altogether sure it was the best it could have been. I ended up having had an enjoyable evening, but not quite sure of what the point of it had been.

I'm a great admirer of Aimard's as a pianist - he has the great gift of being able to play ferociously uncompromising contemporary music (Ligeti, Messiaen) and make it sound like a geological or astronomical event that would have happened with or without the audience, transcending traditional concepts of performance. By which I do not mean contempt for the audience, rather indifference, a much more respectful thing. Most performances of contemporary music seem to be done with the thought "Are you going to like this? Are you going to get this?" in the background, which ruins the whole thing from the start. People "get" truth, and Aimard plays the truth.

Is he going to be a good director of the Festival? I hope so. I hope he manages to keep the audience that likes its Haydn and attract one that hears the melodies in Birtwistle ... I really feel that the ideological battles of the 20th century are behind us, and there is now, and always, only, music. Ten years ago as a young music student, I was horrified by Birtwistle, but now my listening has changed, and yes, I can hear his melodies. Can I whistle any? No, and I wouldn't try. But I love to follow them into the strange landscapes they explore. There are melodies I will always love to return to (Schubert will always be able to make me weep), but I will also, always, love to be introduced to other people's remarkable aural conception of the world. My first impression of Aldeburgh was one of horizons, marine and cultural, broadening at every new influx of light.

The one thing that worries me is this: if there is ONE composer of the 20th century who signals the end of ideology and the victory of non-judgmental listening and thinking, that man is Lord Britten of Aldeburgh. Anyone who is "neutral" about Britten's contribution to the world has not yet, in my opinion, become quite present in life.