Saturday 23 June 2012

Aldeburgh 2012: From Darkness into Joy and Light

Towards the end of Brian McMaster's tenure at the Edinburgh Festival he devised a brilliant series of late evening concerts and other performances under the sponsorship of the Royal Bank of Scotland – the Royal Bank Lates. Since his departure the late night performance has rather disappeared from Edinburgh programmes and excepting the OAE's Late Shift isn't much in evidence elsewhere, so it was lovely to be reminded on Friday night in Leiston what a sense of magic performing at that time can bring to a show.

Before Life and After was a site specific combination of film with three song cycles for tenor and piano in the Long Shop Museum in Leiston. The film element, and the direction of the tenor were both provided by Netia Jones fresh from her triumph with the Knussen Double Bill which opened the Festival. This is the third site specific performance Jones has undertaken at the Aldeburgh Festival and I had heard glowing reports of both the previous two. The song cycles, Britten's Winter Words, excerpts from Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation and Tippett's Boyhood's End, were performed by James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbrook (piano). The music was all new to me and I was especially glad to discover the Britten and the Hardy poems which it sets – particularly 'Before Life and After'.

The venue was well chosen. With its beamed roof high overhead, glimpses of the darkening sky through the odd pane of glass and a steam engine concealing the piano it is a visually striking space with what proved to be a suitably resonant acoustic. The images generally fitted well with the texts of the songs and were linked to some nicely judged acting from James Gilchrist as a station master coming, I presumed we were supposed to imagine, towards the end of long service on the Aldeburgh-Leiston branch line as the axe of closure falls.

Yet, despite these many promising features I was not quite carried away by the evening as a whole. My biggest difficulty was with Gilchrist's voice. He did deliver some individual songs very well – most strikingly the 'Leiermann' influenced 'At the Railway Station, Upway'. Overall though there were two difficulties – the first was issues of diction and strain – too many of the words were not comprehensible, and on a number of occasions he didn't sound comfortable vocally. But the bigger issue was with shaping – that sense of musical line coupled to poetic story that in the greatest recital holds the listener spellbound didn't quite form for me.

But I would not want to overstress these issues. It's great when Festivals experiment with other spaces and other times, there was much to beguile in this performance. Other Festivals could usefully take note.

Saturday morning's happening brought us back to the relatively new complex of buildings developed by Aldeburgh Music on their main Snape Maltings site. This was an incarnation of a John Cage Musicircus. Cage first staged one of these anarchic enterprises in 1967 on a cattle show-ground at the University of Illinois. The idea is that you mingle a large number of performers doing a whole host of different things so that they vie for your attention. In this particular performance a kind of thread was provided by the members of Exaudi who popped up across the various rooms performing John Cage's wonderfully inventive Song Books. I can imagine that this could all be cacophonous but somehow it wasn't. Rather it was two hours of joyful anarchy. I had a coffee, I wandered hither and thither among the rooms, I chatted to people – I heard artists I did not know, music familiar and unfamiliar, and watched major figures throwing themselves into a happy silliness. It was wonderful to see such a mixture of local folk groups, young student performers, professional musicians right up to Aimard himself not only performing but joining the audience wandering among the rooms drinking it all in. Classical performance can still be stuffy, this was anything but.

It would be quite impossible to detail all the performances, the best I can do is capture a few highlights: Fabian Muller I caught twice (once in an uproarious duet with a fellow pianist in a piece that sounded entirely familiar but the name of which escapes me); Juliet Fraser (Exaudi) declaiming “the best form of government is no government” while striking a propaganda pose and competing with a group of Hesse students (I think) attacking the Dvorak American Quartet; Pierre-Laurent Aimard in a musical duel with Zoe Martlow which included a hilariously fragmented Moonlight Sonata and Aimard playing the piano with his bottom and finally Fraser again hopscotching across the Hoffman Building foyer in high heels while putting on a series of often very funny poses.

It's been sometime since I've been at a performance that just radiated such a sense of warmth and fun. Each Cage Musicircus must be, by its very nature, a one off – I can only encourage you to keep your eyes peeled for one near you.

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