Tuesday 18 June 2013

Aldeburgh 2013 - The Church Parables

Grimes on the Beach has, understandably, garnered more attention in this Britten anniversary year but one of the other major productions, the performance of Britten's three church parables in their original location of Orford Church, is unmissable. (Judging from reports we have heard, Grimes should prove so as well - we will be there later in the week.)

Curlew River, Photo by Robert Workman

Director Frederic Wake-Walker has gone back to the source. I should perhaps let the composer himself explain. Writing in the programme for the 1964 festival, Britten said:
It was in Tokyo in January 1956 that I saw a Nō-drama for the first time.... The whole occasion made a tremendous impression upon me, the simple touching story, the economy of the style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing, with which three instruments made up the strange music - it all offered a totally new 'operatic' experience.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Aldeburgh 2013 - In Brief

As well as Volkov and the CBSO's concert, Saturday was a pretty full schedule with two sets of quartets. In the morning Quatuor Mosaiques treated us to Purcell, Haydn and Schubert. Haydn's op.76/6 quartet responded wonderfully to their period style but while Schubert's D887 quartet was very beautifully played I personally prefer a more romantic approach.

That afternoon in Aldeburgh church it was the turn of a quartet with a different style and period: the Arditti Quartet with works by Harvey, Britten and Anderson. I only really know Harvey's larger orchestral works so was glad to hear two of his quartets. Arising from the time he spent at IRCAM (with whom I've also heard him collaborate on Speakings) his fourth quartet was particularly interesting for its use of live electronics. Having said that, the first two sections took a bit too long to build up. They created some nice effects, particularly in the middle section which had a passage akin to whale song. Julian Anderson's Light Music left me rather cold and as was the case the last time I heard a piece of his, failed to evoke the the inspiration detailed in his programme note (so far as that could be deciphered).

Aldeburgh 2013 - Watkins, Volkov and the CBSO PLAY Harvey, Matthews and more

I know Ilan Volkov well from his successful tenure at the BBC SSO, prior to the man himself taking over. To some at the Maltings last night he was a new name, but judging from the reaction they were glad to make his acquaintance. Certainly I was not surprised that his interpretations of Jonathan Harvey and Colin Matthews marked the highlight of the festival so far for me (though I have only had four concerts to date). It helped, of course, that he had the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to work with. I've praised them before, most recently after their Edinburgh visit last summer, and am rather jealous of their forthcoming season.

In the first half, though, the standout performance came from horn soloist Richard Watkins in Colin Matthews' superb horn concerto. I've not encountered the piece before but it should be done more often. According to the programme note, "the horn solo is, literally, a wanderer". And it was refreshing to find that they didn't mean figuratively. The concerto began with both Watkins and Volkov absent from the stage, the orchestra's leader Laurence Jackson beating slowly with his bow. Volkov then tiptoed onto the podium to take up the reins while Watkins made himself heard from the wings. As the twenty minute, single movement work progressed, he made his way across the stage. This was more than just a gimmick as the sound of the horn changed in interesting ways with the Maltings' acoustic: the effect as he stood close to the stage right wall, the bell pointing towards it, was particularly nice. If the need for this odyssey presented an added challenge to Watkins it was not apparent in his playing which was beautifully executed throughout, without a cracked or fluffed note in sight. And as if that wasn't enough, Matthews provided extra horns by the upper doors for a quadraphonic effect. All this made for an experience that was not only excellent musically but also theatrically. It is always nice to come out of a performance of a contemporary piece wondering why on earth it isn't performed more often, and this was certainly one such. (There is a recording available by Watkins, Mark Elder and the Halle on the orchestra's own label which I will now be checking out, though it will not be quite the same.)

Sunday 9 June 2013

Aldeburgh Festival 2013 – A Festival Weekend, or Five Concerts in Two Days

The more astute observers of this website and my twitter feed may have noticed that I like to cram the culture in, and there are few better ways to do that than at busily scheduled Festivals. Aldeburgh isn't quite as mad from this point of view as Edinburgh, but yesterday in particular it kept us very pleasantly busy.

Saturday began at 11am in Aldeburgh Parish Church with Festival Director, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and his sister Valerie Aimard in a recital for cello and piano, both together and solo. The programme was a moderately demanding one of Kurtag, Carter, Shostakovich and Britten, and I fear I may still have been a little weary after a late night at Peter Grimes the previous evening. I got most enjoyment out of the Shostakovich (piano solo) and the Kurtag (cello solo). I was less convinced by the Aimards as a duo pairing. To my ear, and this was perhaps a consequence of being seated on the piano side, the sound didn't appear equally balanced, and Valerie Aimard I found a bit austere for my taste. It was never an uninteresting recital, and it was well worth hearing all four works, but she, in particular, didn't compare for me with Miklos Perenyi's performance on the same instrument in the same venue last year, or with Heinrich Schiff who used to come to Edinburgh in the McMaster years.

Aldeburgh Festival 2013 – Peter Grimes in Concert, or, I Simply Hadn't Realised

Prior to this performance, I had seen Peter Grimes staged twice. Once by Scottish Opera in a perfectly acceptable production but with an inadequate Grimes, and once in the ENO David Alden production which I detested. In contrast my first experience of Billy Budd (in the marvellous ENO Albery production) was overwhelming. I think it is in consequence of this that I have tended to have a grumble to myself on a regular basis at the insistence on Grimes as Britten's operatic masterpiece. After this performance it is clear to me that I simply had not had the opportunity to realise what an extraordinarily powerful piece it is.

This concert performance will be followed next week by performances on Aldeburgh Beach. This brought real benefits as, unusually for concert opera, the performers had all been rehearsing together for some time. It showed. The soloists were all off score and the individual characterisations were without exception remarkably vivid. I was very grateful to be close enough to the stage to really see every facial expression. Especially notable was the way in which expressions and body language in sections where individuals were not actually singing conveyed a continuing deep engagement with the drama. For example, in the build up to Ellen Orford's arrival at the pub in Act 1 Scene 2 Giselle Allen somehow gave a sense that she was out there on the storm tossed cart.

Hearing an opera score in concert often leads one to pay more attention to aspects which have previously not registered, and this also happened to me at Friday's performance. I was particularly struck by the brief flirtation at the beginning of Act 3 between Swallow and the nieces.