Saturdays at Aldeburgh Festivals tend to be busily scheduled, and the first of the 2014 edition proved to be no exception. Five concerts were on offer starting at 11am in Blythburgh and ending at 11pm in Snape. I managed four (skipping Richard Goode in the main evening concert as he previously failed to grab me in Edinburgh). With the exception of the last, it was well worth a slightly manic day.
Proceedings kicked off at 11am with three twentieth century French works for two pianos performed by Festival Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and regulars Tamara Stefanovich and Nenad Lecic. This seemed to follow, to some degree, on the excellent two piano recital from the final weekend last year and once again showed Aimard as an astute programmer. The highlight of the first half was the original virtuosic two-piano version of Ravel's La Valse brought off with aplomb by Lecic and Stefanovich, but the heart of the recital came from the single work of the second half: Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen. I previously heard this work in a performance given as part of the wonderful Royal Bank Lates series at the Edinburgh Festival, but found it instructive to hear it again on the back of having got to know Messiaen's music a lot better. In consequence I felt I had a much clearer appreciation of the structure of the piece, and various key aspects of Messiaen's style. What also undoubtedly made this special though were the performances of Aimard and Stefanovich who made me feel I was listening to a single instrument. The stylistic range required from soft, delicate passagework to precise, emphasised loud staccato is impressive in itself, but the most striking aspects were the way both players conveyed such a complete grasp of the architecture of the piece, and thus were able, in an intense heartfelt reading to build to an overpowering climax. Aided by the superb Blythburgh acoustic it was a really special experience.
In the afternoon, transported back to Aldeburgh courtesy of the Festival coach, I attended the Pavel Haas Quartet's two concerts pairing the Smetana and Janacek quartets. As a quartet they possess great energy and sense of drama and produced compelling readings of all four works, but the finest for me was the last work in the series – Janacek's Second Quartet “Intimate Letters”. Cellist Peter Jarusk stood out for beauty of tone. My one reservation about the performances was that just occasionally I would have liked a little more beauty of tone from the quartet as a whole and especially the first violinist, though the slightly dry acoustic of Aldeburgh Church perhaps doesn't always help – certainly when coming direct from Blythburgh.
My Aldeburgh day ended at 10pm in the Britten Studio in the company of the choir Exaudi and electronics composer Russell Haswell. The brief for this concert was that it would combine a performance of Brumel's Missa Et ecce terrae motus by the former with noise music (as the programme booklet described it) by the latter which would try to give some sense of experiencing earth tremors. It was this unusual combination, unlike I suspect many in the audience who were there for Exaudi, which persuaded me to go. I just have never really got on with early music and even Exaudi's superlative singing did not change my mind. About 10 minutes of something like Brumel was more than enough for me, and unfortunately there were about 45 minutes. As for the noise music, we had received plenty of warning about the decibel level and been supplied with complimentary ear plugs which I made use of. The most effective linkage between the two took place in the final movement where the original manuscript is mutilated and there was a meaningful connection between gradually increasing electronic noise and the disappearance of the voices one by one. However, the noise which followed while I suppose giving one some sense of what it might be like to be caught in an earthquake then went on too long, in too similar a way. During the early part of the piece the noise music didn't seem to have much to say and didn't really feel well integrated with the movements of the Brumel. Overall, a potentially interesting experiment in theory that didn't really come off in practice.
Overall, the day displayed the Festival's impressive range, but did make me feel by the end that four concerts for me personally may have been just a bit too much.