Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Aldeburgh 2012: Ives Symphonies, or, Going out with a Bang (well quite a few bangs really)

The 2012 Aldeburgh Festival ended on Sunday with one of those large forces extravaganzas that might have been specifically written for just such a purpose. It also ended with a European premiere, which makes it rather interesting that the whole enterprise seemed to have escaped the attention of the BBC.

The programme was made up of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, and two symphonies by American oddity Charles Ives, his moderately well-known Second (though it was completely new to me) and his Universe Symphony (the aforementioned European premiere). Under the direction of Ives scholar James Sinclair, an enormous number of student musicians from the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, the Britten-Pears Orchestra, Aldeburgh Young Musicians, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music and the University of London Symphony Orchestra threw themselves into the performance with gusto.

A word first about the Universe Symphony. Ives only completed a Prelude and two movements – in fact reading the detailed programme note by Sinclair it seems more accurate to say that one movement (Earth) is complete and this was followed in this performance by a Coda originally intended to form part of the Heaven movement. There have been attempts at completion but this was apparently the most that can be performed while remaining 'true' Ives as it were.

Having cleared our heads with the fanfare blasts of the Copland (which reverberated impressively in the Maltings acoustic), the ensemble rolled out the Ives Prelude. The original intention to perform this outside was sadly abandoned (according to a member of the Aldeburgh staff I talked to at the interval there was concern the percussion would sink) but it probably sounded clearer indoors. An added element of theatricality was provided by the music stand centre stage with a flipchart covering numbers 1 to 20 odd turned over and then back as required by an orchestra member, her hand solemnly shaken by Sinclair before we began. The prelude starts with a single crash of a gong (another amazing sound in the Maltings) then gradually percussionist after percussionist stretched along the back of the stage were added to the mix and removed so the end is as the beginning. The first time through there's a lot of cross-tempi going on, the second time it's more uniform. Oddly it felt as if it followed on appropriately from the world of the Musicircus the previous day – the ear heard different things each time through. The rest of the piece made slightly less of an impression – there were some striking brass eruptions and one felt the pulse of the prelude relentlessly driving on but the whole felt just a bit shapeless though I couldn't decide whether this was the nature of the unfinished piece or a flaw in Sinclair's direction. Another slight flaw was that although there were four groups of musicians dotted around the hall to symbolise Heaven I couldn't tell whether they were playing – again not knowing the piece I can't say whether they should blend so completely in or if the balance should have been different. Overall it was an intriguing experience.

After the interval came Ives's Second Symphony. It surprises me that this piece is not more frequently performed, it's very accessible, there's a great sense of joy about it, and it's fun trying to spot the musical quotations – the programme note gives a quite enormous list most of which I'm afraid escaped me. I particularly enjoyed the Brahmsian sweep of the opening of the fourth movement – it sounds unmistakably like him and yet not, a moment in the opening movement when we suddenly cut down to a string quartet, and the riotously fun finale. As in the Universe Symphony the standard of playing was generally high, but here and there the fact that it was a student orchestra did show in occasional lack of complete security in tone, and that ultimate sharpness of ensemble. I also felt that while Sinclair is clearly a leading scholar of Ives he is not in the front rank of conductors – just that bit more sense of sharpness and shaping was needed there also to have made it a really top notch performance.

But it was never less than enjoyable and it was great to be given the chance to hear the premiere, which brings me back to my first point. Why were the BBC not there to record it for future broadcast? I wonder if it could be the same explanation that produced quite a few empty seats in the auditorium despite the fact that at £15 the tickets represented crazily good value for money – that is that student groups are on some level undervalued, and certainly regarded as unworthy for major broadcasts. I wondered this the more because I recalled afterwards a recent run at the Guildhall of Sallinen's opera The King Went Forth to France. I can't recall that being on in London up to now in all the time I've been an operagoer and again the opportunity to bring a rarity to a wider audience was missed. The BBC could usefully have another think about policy on this. In the meantime it was a fine round off to what has been a good return to Aldeburgh for me. Next year is to include Peter Grimes on the beach...the management must be hoping it's not going to be another wet June.

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