Sunday 4 July 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - Boulez and the Ensemble intercontemporain

It is, perhaps, hardly a surprise that Aimard brought arguably France's most prominent living composer and conductor to the Aldeburgh festival.  Indeed, in some respects, the surprise is that this is his first visit.  Given his age, despite looking remarkably spry for his mid 80s, it may also be the last.  Surprising, then, that it wasn't sold out.  True, it was a somewhat challenging programme, but no more so than many others.  But then the Mahler Chamber Orchestra didn't sell out last year.  Interestingly, the audience demographic seemed markedly different from the rest of the week (either that or the pharmacies of Aldeburgh have been doing a roaring trade in hair dye).  As a relatively young person who often worries that in the future there may not be an audience for the kinds of concerts he likes to go to, this was encouraging.

They began with Octandre by Edgard Varese.  Unfortunately it didn't do very much for me.  It was discordant, screechy and didn't seem to amount to terribly much.

Fortunately much, much better was to follow in the form of Ligeti.  The more Ligeti I hear, the more I am impressed by two things: that no two pieces seem alike and that they are reliably excellent.  His Chamber Concerto proved no exception.  As ever, there was a clever use of orchestration, which included two keyboards per pianist, playing pianos, harpsichords and synthesisers, leading to some wonderful textures.  Making it even more magical it was not always entirely clear where the analogue instruments ended and the digital one began.  The work built to a brilliantly frantic climax in the third movement and featured some of the most aggressive pizzicato playing I've ever seen.

Ligeti was followed by Carter (who was celebrated at last year's festival) and the world premiere of his What Are Years, a setting for soprano of poems by Marianne Moore.  Not only were these good poems but they were well sung by Claire Booth, though it was still good to have the text in the programme (why we got the text for this and not the Britten on Thursday I cannot understand - clearly it isn't just a question of the language).  Carter's settings proved imaginative and nicely coloured.

After the interval it was time for Boulez to conduct Boulez.  He had chosen Derive 2, a forty-five minute single movement work.   To begin with it was both intensely chaotic and a little repetitive (certainly a theme of some of this year's music), but gradually a degree of order emerged, more and more so until a very focused feel at the end.  It was a compelling and interesting listen.  And yet, one couldn't help feeling that Boulez could have said as much in a somewhat shorter space of time and that better editing would have resulted in a stronger work.

The playing of the ensemble was never less than excellent.  There was also a nicely egalitarian feel as Boulez walked on together with them.  He was dressed in a three piece suite which fitted with the rather businesslike manner in which he came on, conducted with minimal gestures and acknowledged the audience, almost as if they were incidental.

One note - in this concert we were actually able to read our programmes.  There has been a lack of light in the auditorium throughout the festival but tonight the combination of the stage lights being up full and the house lights seeming brighter fixed this.  Apparently Boulez had complained it was too dark.  Hopefully the management will take note so that we can read our programmes before every concert in future.

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