Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Aldeburgh 2012


Imagine the Salzburg Festival where the only Mozart performed is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and a group of songs; or Bayreuth when the only Wagner performed is the Siegfried Idyll and the Wesendonck songs? No? Then what about this year's Aldeburgh Festival when the only music of Britten heard was the Chinese Songs, Winter Words and some of his early film scores? Oh yes and there was also a talk entitled ' Ben, Peter, Imo and Co.' by somebody with the same name as myself. Still, a pretty meagre crop. But with a director who confessed that his reaction to the music of Benjamin Britten was "neutral', what you expect is what we get.                                                                                                                       

As a pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, however, is first class as he has shown again and again. He was brilliant this year, for example, in Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion and, indeed, in anything he played, including Elliott Carter's Interventions, composed when the American composer was approaching his 100th birthday. This substantial piece was played with the City of Birmingham Symphony conducted with his usual mastery by Oliver Knussen, himself celebrating a birthday, his 60th.

O.K. also brought vividly to life two Ives works, the Fourth of July shenanigan and the wonderful Three Places in New England. Bartok's Three Village Scenes (with small female chorus) was a delightful and rarely heard item. Also heard was Harrison Birtwistle's Cantus Iambeus a short work that confirmed his radio statement:

"I am not in the entertainment business  " (as if we didn't know!). Knussen's own Requiem for Sue (his wife) was eloquently sung by the soprano Dawn Upshaw. 

Great imagination and innovation was shown in an unusual entertainment directed by Netia Jones: three song cycles were sung (and touchingly mimed) by James Gilchrist, tenor of excellence, while decorative and illuminating film went on behind him. All three had to do with childhood and early adulthood: Britten's aforementioned Winter Words, dramatic vignettes that miraculously add an extra dimension to Hardy's poems, Finzi's more homely and almost parochially English A Young Man's Exhortation (also Hardy) and Michael Tippett's cantata Boyhoods End, words by the naturalist W.H. Hudson that recall his childhood in South America, Far Away and Long Ago.

Peter Pears wrote at the time when he premiered the work in 1943 with Britten at the piano, the piece shows "that innovative and radiant fantasy" of Tippett. Gilchrist coped effortlessly, with the coloratura and awkward intervals and Anne Tilbrook did the same with the piano part (which provoked Britten to write to the composer "I wish your piano parts weren't so difficult".)

Other festive delights were the Keller Quartet's fine playing of Bartok's quartets and several transcriptions of Bach and two evenings of unaccompanied choral works: the Monteverdi Choir in an uplifting trawl through early English church scores: Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins and the lesser known but wonderful Robert White (1538 – 1574). Gesualdo's religious music was beautifully tuned and toned by the Callegium Gent direction by Philippe Herreweghe (some could have appreciated a group of some spicy madrigals rather than a whole evening of the penitential Good Friday music that we were given.) It was interesting to compare the style of the two ensembles: John Eliot Gardiner's was more dramatic and passionate, Herreweghe's (appropriately of course) more staid and, erm!, Belgian.

The veteran pianist Menahem Pressler (remember him all those years in the Beaux Arts Trio, one of the great chamber music groups of our time?) played Mozart, Lv B, Chopin and Schubert (the last Sonata in B flat) and gave consummate pleasure. The high point was the pianissimo singing of Chopin's D flat Nocturne, opus 27/2; the sound and shaping ravished the ear – bliss! Alfred Brendel's fingers came out of retirement to illustrate his lecture on Liszt with works he hasn't played in for public for donkey's years. Other pianists included Peter Serkin's rather penitential first half of present day conundra and a magisterial account of LvB's masterly Diabelli Variations; and an enterprising replica of the piano recital that Bela Bartok gave to some no doubt bewildered school girls in 1923 (they can't have known what hit them as the Hungarian arch-modernist regaled them with his early extremely rebarbative pieces of that time.) The excellent pianist was Tatiana Stefanovich, the Jugoslav musician, who had earlier partnered Aimard in Bartok Sonata.

A feature of the Festival, as usual, was that some of the concerts took place in venues away from the Maltings in Snape, the unique Blythburgh Church with its painted angels on the roof, the machine vault in Leiston where the piano stood next to a vintage locomotive, Orford's spacious church, and the school hall where Bartok had earned his £15 – fee nearly ninety years ago.

It should be mentioned, finally, that next year, the centenary of Britten's birth, the planners are actually going to programme several works by the Suffolk genius, including Peter Grimes on the beach! (bring your sou'westers).

The Fairy Queen

Jolly Glyndebourne Entertainment

The Fairy Queen is a hybrid, a semi-opera and it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2009 on the occasion of Henry Purcell's 350th birthday. It proved to be a jolly entertainment that does not dig deep into one's soul but it was good to see it again, as before produced by Jonathan Dove, seemingly no expense spared. The work is a species of masque, a form popular in the seventeenth century involving actors as well as singers, dancers and musicians. Poetic drama also features, in this case a rehash by Anon of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Curiously, although many of the lines are spoken, Purcell set none of them to music. Barring the first act, the other four each contains a section with text and music devoted to, variously, Sleep, Seduction, the New Day and Marriage. There are additional numbers involving Winter, a Drunken Poet plus Adam and Eve.

Purcell's music is lively and non-subjective, with one or two celebrated numbers such as Hark! the Echoing Air. The music before the second act is a high spot and was finely toned and shaped by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment directed with style by Laurence Cummings. The large cast performs with charm and versatility. There is always something to catch the eye or woo the ear, a giant spider, a full-sized horse, a roi soleil, funny mechanicals and a mass of furry telly tubbies.
Carolyn Sampson captivated with a nocturnal song, Christopher Benjamin was a lovable Drunken Poet, David Soar a weather beaten Winter, Pennie Downie a fearsome Titania and Finbar Lynch a yobbo Oberon.

For once the weather was clement (July 25), sunny and kind, the Sussex audience enjoyed itself hugely and Henry Purcell was done proud.

An eminent musical academic once told me that when the architect, Inigo Jones, himself a renowned producer of masque, got married Purcell composed a saucy catch which began with the words: 'In I go, In I go Jones!! When I pointed out that Inigo Jones died in 1652 and that Purcell was not born until 1659 my academic friend countered "John, with dates you can prove anything".

Berlioz Done Proud

Les Troyens au Jardin de Couvent

Berlioz despaired of ever seeing his darling Cassandra on the stage. We Brits have done him proud at Covent Garden, first with Rafael Kubelik, then with Colin Davis and the unforgettable Jon Vickers as Aeneas; and now July 2012 with a sumptuous production of Les Troyens pretty well sung. Here was the Cassandra the ageing Hector craved, Anna Caterina Antonacci, statuesque, regal, wonderful voice, thrilling, a Cassandra who died for us, a Cassandra to die for. Pappano in the pit gave her entry music with overwhelming passion and he maintained a powerful grip over his virtuosic band. If Berlioz had lived on, I wonder if he wouldn't have played the famous March in the pit instead of having it sounded only on the stage.

The production visually was all curves and flames. The curtain went up (at five o'clock!) on what one might have thought was a bemetalled Albert Hall. More curves for Carthage, tiered this time. Handsome, imaginative: and long ropes for the departure of Aeneas and his men. Dismay at the withdrawal of master tenor Jonah Kaufmann was more than tempered by the performance of his replacement, American Bryan Hywel, good actor, fine voice, every inch a hero, singing his great final aria with passion and ringing high notes. ("There's no turning back"). Coroebus (Fabio Capitanucci, high baritone) a worthy partner. But, what of Didon, Widow Dido? A cheer for Eva-Maria Westbrook, who is beautiful, tall, acts and sings the notes accurately; she would be the ideal Dido if her voice were more beautiful. Chorus lusty, fine.

Virgil's horse was wooden, in W.C.2 the gee-gee seemed all metal, plates, wheels, rods (with a touch of War Horse), vast and menacing. The greatly talented set-designer Es Sutton has worked at the Garden before and she will shortly have her Robert Devereux on view at the Met. Donald McVicar's production was relatively rational, give or take the nowadays habitual time hiccup. Gods and humans, some would leave their dear ones, others would not.

Some of Berlioz's big works have weak endings (who was it said that he had genius but no talent?) but this five-hour epic shows consistent genius, melodies that carry you along, compelling rhythms, ideas two a penny/franc, blazing sequences (flames in the pit as well as on stage). His orchestration so creative it makes the listener grateful that Hector was no pianist.

Only one blot on Trojan landscape: the ballet numbers were ruined by inept choreography. Otherwise it was a worthy performance of a truly grand masterpiece. Berlioz would have been grateful.