Wednesday 15 June 2011

Aldeburgh 2011 in Brief - Tuesday 14th June

Rather than a full review of Tuesday's events, I intend to give just a brief summary of my thoughts.

The day nearly began with a showing at Aldeburgh cinema of Bernstein's LSO performance of Mahler's second symphony, filmed at Ely cathedral. However, not least as I have it on DVD, we opted out. It's actually a very fine performance, though I rather wish Humphrey Burton had focussed more on the music and less on the architecture. Still, seeing Bernstein and Janet Baker perform is a treat for those of us too young to have actually done so (the LSO and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus are very fine too).

One of the joys of Aldeburgh is the many beautiful settings in which you find yourself attending concerts. Blythburgh church is arguably second only to the main Snape Maltings site in this regard. And, with Christophe Rousset on hand to provide a harpsichord recital featuring Couperin (both Louis and François) and Handel, we had music to match the setting. It was all very nicely played, though seventy minutes without interval is a long time to be sitting on the hard wooden church pews and the programme would surely have benefitted from a break. Perhaps as a result of this, as much as any artistic merit, I found the Handel the most persuasive. I also found myself wishing he'd given us a little bit of my favourite harpsichord repertoire, the music of JS Bach, which I find makes a particular sense when played on the instrument.

The Rape of Lucretia

Amid an already rich opening weekend of the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, which has included such highlights as Simon Rattle and the CBSO's stunning Messiaen and Spira Mirabilis's wonderful Beethoven, it almost seems greedy to expect yet another highlight of the same order. Yet this is what the festival served up in their concert performance of Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia. It hasn't always worked on the stage, yet in this setting it is fearsomely dramatic, such as when Tarquinius makes his horse ride to Rome, or the vividness of his passage down the corridor to Lucretia's room to commit the titular act. Indeed, in much the same way as a passion, one could see it working much better this way than in an actual staging. It is the case that at a few moments, such as when Tarquinius sings that he is taking Lucretia's hand, it might have been nice to semi-stage and actually do this, not least as they were standing right next to each other at the time.

It isn't a work I'm hugely familiar with, yet hearing it showcased like this gives me cause to wonder why. The light, single part, scoring is full of beautiful and glittering music, and it provided a wonderful opportunity for the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble to shine. The scratch group of top notch players had been specially assembled by Oliver Knussen for the purpose and they were never less than a treat to listen to. Knussen himself was masterful, both in his control of his forces, but also in his unassuming nature, never getting in the way of the music or drama, but rather always its servant.

So, to the singers, and here too we were spoilt. The piece has a distinctly Greek feel to it, featuring as it does male and female chorus who comment on the action throughout. These parts went to Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton respectively. I am not always convinced by Bostridge and can find his performances overdone sometimes, however on Monday night I could find no fault, indeed, he was wonderful, commanding, his voice beautiful and clear. Opposite him, Gritton was very nearly as fine, certainly in terms of tone and colour, the only reservation would concern the audibility of the words, which, as with several of the women, was slightly less good. However, this is a minor caveat, as in all cases enough of the words were audible to follow the plot clearly; and, given this, I was glad that they did not opt for surtitling, as some critics have suggested they should have, since this draws attention away from the drama.

Aldeburgh celebrates Ligeti

Day three of the 2011 Aldeburgh festival brought a multifaceted celebration of Ligeti, including performances and talks and his work paired with other composers. My first concert was the mid-afternoon Homage to Ligeti. What had brought me was not primarily Ligeti, but rather Messiaen's Appel interstellaire from his masterpiece Des Canyons aux etoiles. It's a magnificent piece for solo horn, echoing and glistening. Far more than, say, Holst's Planets, it captures both the vast emptiness of space and its punctuation with moments extraordinary beauty. Sadly Marie-Luise Neunecker's performance failed to move me. In part this was because there seemed to be less empty space than there ought to be, in part because, despite the fine acoustic of the Britten Studio, it didn't seem to echo and resonate as wonderfully as in Edinburgh's Usher Hall. A final problem was that, shorn of Messiaen's epic and eclectic orchestration in the other movements, it lost its context and was less remarkable as a result. Without those other eighty minutes it was surely bound to be something of an unsatisfactory bleeding chunk.

The horn caused me some problems at the start of Ligeti's Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano as well. The programme note went into some detail about Ligeti having scored it for a natural horn, yet Neunecker didn't use one. No explanation was forthcoming, but I for one would have liked to know if and how much of a difference it made. As a piece, it didn't really grab me, the first time I can say that of Ligeti. It didn't seem either so interestingly textured or as compelling as the other (mainly  orchestral) Ligeti I've come across. I also missed violinist Pekka Kuusisto's charming style of introduction, particularly as he struggled to arrange the many taped-together pieces of his part.

The seven Ligeti Etudes that came after the interval were another matter altogether. Here, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich shared the keyboard duties, the latter providing a particularly commanding and impressive technical display, though Aimard was excellent too. These were beautiful and fascinating miniatures: one was a dazzle of intricate fingerwork, another had a lyric beauty, the third an etherial sparkle. The final study, a chasing increase of intensity (aptly titled The Devil's Staircase) was magnificent.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Spira Mirabilis and Pekka Kuusisto break down the fourth wall

Midway through Saturday's afternoon concert in Aldeburgh church, fronted by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, I was strongly reminded of Biff Smith, lead singer of The Starlets. Now, even if you're familiar with this Scottish indie band, the connection might not seem obvious. However, both have a charming way with words and stories and use it to build up a rapport with the audience, drawing them in and making them laugh. Outside a classical music concert such an approach is commonplace; in one it comes as something of a breath of fresh air.

It was all the more striking as the musical day, had, in fact, not begun with Kuusisto's concert, but rather in the Snape Maltings with the exciting new ensemble Spira Mirabilis. Now, in point of fact, I have previously encountered more or less all the things that give them their freshness, though not all packaged together like this. What many would notice first is their lack of a conductor. This, of course, is not unique. In addition to the various soloists who direct from the keyboard, there are various chamber sized orchestras who play some or all of the time without a conductor and do so very successfully. Perhaps the most famous example is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, but I have also heard the SCO do it. A key difference, though, is that with the SCO one player, for example cellist David Watkin, has taken on the role of directing them while also playing. And, as Watkin himself notes, for him "'direct' doesn't depart much from 'conduct'". Spira Mirabilis seem to have taken a more consensual and democratic approach.

So, anyway, they aver. Watching them rehearse is an interesting experience, reminding me rather of various committees I've sat on. To be sure everyone gets a say and can challenge things, but there are a few people making most of the running and there are a couple of very clear leaders. It strikes me more as directors held accountable rather than no directors. It would be very interesting now to watch the Orpheus rehearse. Another issue raised by democracy and the lack of a conductor is what happens when strings want one approach and brass another, given the fact that strings outnumber brass and there is no referee. Also, as with a committee, such an approach rewards those who are more confident speakers and better at making an argument. Certainly, there was no shortage of players saying little or nothing. In addition, there was rather less of the sort of "let's hear this passage with violas and horns" than I might expect at a conventional rehearsal.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Rattle and the CBSO open the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival with Messiaen and Mahler

The combination of Simon Rattle, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mahler was always going to be a hot ticket at the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, and so it proved with the opening concert selling out before public booking opened. Refreshingly, the hype proved justified.

The programme opened with Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (or And I await the resurrection of the dead). Certainly, if one were ever looking for a piece with which to wake the dead, this would come high on the shortlist. Rattle has already brought it to the UK this year, during his visit to the LSO, yet one person who had heard both commented that it benefitted from the superior acoustic of the Snape Maltings.

The scoring, for thirty-four winds and percussion is a little unconventional. Yet this leads to some wonderful effects, such as the two tubas and trombone at the opening. Indeed, I can't recall the last time I heard two tubas, but based on this it is something that should be used more often. In other respects, the piece might be described as a concerto for gongs: there is, for example, the stunning crescendo built up during the third movement, the chord built by the repeated striking of three different gongs in the fourth, and the climax at the work's close. Here the Maltings acoustic played its part, the sound resonating, building and layering in the sort of physical way that even the greatest of hi-fi systems could never hope to recreate in your living room. It was all-enveloping and it was quite incredible. But there was nuance to these effects too. It was not simply loud gong clashes: take, for example, the low industrial rumble that figured at one point. As with much Messiaen, the work built to a powerful and intensely spiritual climax. There, as throughout, the playing of the CBSO under Rattle was exemplary.