Saturday, 20 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Aimard, Benjamin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

It's nice to be back in the Maltings concert hall, one of my favourite in the country (the seats may not be the most comfortable, in fact, they definitely aren't, but the sight lines are good everywhere, the sound is fantastic and the situation is unique). Friday's concert marked my first visit since last year's festival and things have changed a little. To the right as you enter, various walls have been knocked through to create a little shop (which had Jochum's Meistersinger on sale very cheaply second hand - just as well, as I've wanted that for a while). As always with Aldeburgh, a high proportion of the programme was new to me, though unlike yesterday, there was at least one work I've heard before.

The concert was also my first chance to see Pierre-Laurent Aimard in action since he became artistic director, but that would have to wait for the second half. The concert began with Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. I'm not always a huge admirer of the composer, but the piece was nice enough and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played very well (in their white tuxedos - I'm quite surprised there are still orchestras that do this). Benjamin perhaps took it a little slowly, but not knowing the piece this is hard to judge.

This was followed by a work from Julian Anderson, it was to have been Fantasias but the programme notes that because the premiere was delayed, Aldeburgh are unable to present the UK premiere. Instead we got his Shir Hashirim for soprano and orchestra. In his note on the programme insert Anderson talks about his desire to set the Song of Songs as it is:

..the most beautiful love poem of which I am aware..


Now, I think this is one of those cases where the programme notes and text are actually not an enhancement. Purely musically speaking it's a fine piece. The soprano (Susanna Andersson, singing beautifully, with a clean and powerful voice) soars over the turbulent orchestra at times and is at others overwhelmed. The orchestration is interesting too. Anderson has chosen to set the text in Hebrew, and certain his scoring does seem to have the right feel, or, it would do for me if the subject was different. To me it doesn't feel like a love poem so much as someone who's very upset. None the less, it is a wonderful piece to listen to.

The first half drew to a close with more Elliot Carter, this time in the form of his Three Occasions. After the brief and lively A Celebration of Some 100 x 150 notes come two longer pieces. The first wins the composer points in my book: as a sometime (very bad) trombonist, it's nice to see a big solo trombone part. Called Remembrance, it is dedicated to Paul Fromm and has the trombone (well played, presumably by Roger Harvey) above sullen orchestra accompaniment. The finale movement Anniversary, is a shade disappointing. Not bad per se, just a little dull. It was written to mark the composer's 50th anniversary with his wife, but didn't seem terribly joyful to me. No Siegfried Idyll here.

During the interval, the stage had been rearranged and the piano moved into place. First up was a work composed by Benjamin himself, the UK premiere of his Duet for piano and orchestra. The first odd thing to notice was the absence of any violins, an interesting choice of orchestration, meaning that there were no instruments stage right of the piano. This made for a slightly odd balance in the hall. It was, however, an engaging piece with a strong rhythmic drive and plenty of drama. Aimard himself played very well.

The evening closed with Ravel's concerto for left hand. Now, immediately Aimard and company were putting themselves into dangerous territory: I last heard this back in February and it was under the baton of Donald Runnicles, always a tough act to follow (the pianist on that occasion was Adam Golka). Since I wrote it all then, I won't retread my extremely potted background of why Ravel (and others) wrote left hand concerti to being with, you can read it here (scroll down to the fourth paragraph).

It was given an okay performance, but one that didn't sweep me away (in stark contrast to almost everyone else in the audience), lacking the compelling drama I found in February. First of all, it was too often too loud, something that can be a bit of the problem in the Maltings when you have a very big orchestra. Still, I don't think they needed to take it as loudly as Benjamin and Aimard did, the latter tending a bit too much toward thumping for my taste. Benjamin himself is not nearly such a fine and sensitive accompanist as is Runnicles, and cannot draw such a fine sound from the orchestra as Runnicles can from their Scottish colleagues. That said, it was not without some very fine moments: Aimard's playing of the cadenza was especially beautiful. He struggled, even more than Golka had, to keep his right hand still: now resting it on his leg, now gripping the side of the piano or the stool, now in his lap; at one point he even raised it as though he were about to strike the ivories. It must be phenomenally difficult to exercise this control as it surely goes against all a pianist's training.

The performance is being broadcast on Radio 3 in full on 25 June, see here for details.

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