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.

After a couple of hours break for lunch, coffee and the confirmation that the Aldeburgh secondhand bookstore is still ridiculously priced, we moved on to Blythburgh Church for a performance by the Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Kaspars Putnins. They were revelatory, and Festivals and promoters across Britain should be rushing to engage them. For this concert, entitled Angels at Blythburgh, they combined the works of Elizabethan English composers with Jonathan Harvey. The Festival is paying a particular tribute to the latter's work following his untimely death last year. The Latvians were superb in both modes. Among the Elizabethan works their performance of Thomas Tomkins's When David Heard especially sent shivers down my spine. The Harvey works had an interesting variety. Some were comparatively straightforward settings of rather lovely texts – I had not previously known Edwin Muir's The Annunciation which contrasts the extraordinary moment of that event where time seems to stop for the Angel and Mary, with a world moving inexorably on outside. But they also included Buddhist influenced works meditating on the wonder of creation. It was here that the Latvians distinctiveness was really on show. I think the best way I can describe this is to ask you to imagine a very striking young woman in a black velvet jacket imitating a clearly rather aristocratic pig, with other choir members doing similar farmyard animal impersonations. But the choir also have a remarkable precision of sound, and blending of the voices. Altogether a marvellous concert.

Back at the Maltings in the evening, the Britten Sinfonia and Ryan Wigglesworth finished off our day with more Britten, Tippett, Bartok and Judith Weir. I was flagging a bit by this stage (it had been a very busy working week as well) and I don't think I was able to enjoy this concert as much as I might have done if I'd been a bit fresher. However, Sophie Bevan followed excellent opera performances I've heard from her with a superb Les Illuminations, and the orchestra gave a fine account of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The less said about Judith Weir's new work the better (the third new work of hers I've heard which has done nothing for me).

Having skipped the Festival Service on Sunday morning, and having heard Peter Grimes on Friday night, today's activities were confined to a pair of afternoon concerts in Orford Church, with a cup of tea and cake snatched on the quay between them (amazingly it transpired that both tea places near the church were obliged to shut up shop owing to licensing restrictions at just the point that a large elderly naturally tea consuming audience were emerging from concert one). The first concert featured the New London Children's Choir conducted by Ronald Corp in two works: Britten's Friday Afternoons and a collaborative set of eight new settings of William Blake entitled Innocence and Experience by Sally Beamish, Thea Musgrave, Charlotte Bray and Anna Meredith. The texts for the latter were supplied, but not unfortunately the former, though fortunately diction was fair. Of the new settings I particularly enjoyed Bray's setting of The Garden of Love. The Britten is interesting to hear once, but I don't think I would rush to hear it again. This should not be read as a criticism of the performers who sang excellently and brought a great range of personalities to the stage.

The final concert of the day combined the New London Children's Choir, Aldeburgh Voices and the Latvian Radio Choir. Once again we had the Latvians magnificent precision blend at work this time in Ligeti's Lux Aeterna and Harvey's Plainsongs for Peace and Light, and their talent for mixing strange cries and noises with traditional choral singing in Santa Ratniece's Horo horo hata hata. Aldeburgh Voices did a nice imitation of Russian workers manning the barricades in some Shostakovich hackwork, and made a vain attempt to resurrect Britten's Pacifist Hymn. The latter which labours under a tune that sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan's pirates catlike tread, and some terrible Ronald Duncan lyrics had best I think be put safely back in its dusty drawer until the bicentennial. Finally all three forces combined for a performance of Britten's Voices of Today. With the Latvians and Aldeburgh Voices at one end of the church and the Children's Choir at the other we were enveloped in sound, making for a magical conclusion to my Aldeburgh weekend.

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