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).