Aldeburgh Festival 2018
Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, concert given on Friday 8th June, reviewed by TONY COOPER
The ongoing theme in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival (the 71st) focuses on Britten and America reflecting the year of 1948 when the festival laid down its roots not only enriching the cultural life of Suffolk and its environs but the country as a whole.
Britten and Bernstein (the centenary of the latter’s birth falls this year) were both towering figures in the world of music working not just as composers, pianists and conductors but also as educators at a time when education was in its infancy in the creative world.
Both men were celebrated and revered and here their music can be heard side by side. Many connections resonate across this festival including the likes of Peter Grimes, W H Auden, the Revd Walter Hussey and their bosom friend, Aaron Copland, whom, incidentally, Britten met for the first time at the 1938 ISCM Festival in London where El Salón México and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were played at the same concert.
And in the opening concert at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Copland was on the bill with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Wilson delivering a sensitive, atmospheric and compelling reading of Quiet City, a work featuring soloists from the orchestra, Mark O’Keeffe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais). A mellow and inviting work offering an ode to New York, Quiet City was composed for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name which, unfortunately, never made it past preview performances.
Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety – the title emanating from W H Auden’s poem of the same name – regally followed. Completed in March 1949 in New York City, the work was dedicated to and commissioned by the Russian-born conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who was preparing to end his 25-year career conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in that year.
Bernstein considered Auden’s poem, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948, ‘one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry’ and added that a ‘composition of a symphony based on ‘‘The Age of Anxiety’’ acquires an almost compulsive quality.’ Bernstein recalled that ‘When I first read the book I was breathless.’
Bernstein was an innovative and forward-thinking composer. He scored his second symphony for solo piano and orchestra thereby abandoning the traditional symphonic form and dividing the piece into six subsections (mirroring Auden’s text) split equally into two parts and performed without interruption.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra delivered an exhilarating and thrilling performance which Bernstein, surely, would have loved. The French-born pianist Cédric Tiberghien heightening the excitement of the audience particularly in the showy and jazz-influenced movement ‘The Masque’ that touched upon boogie-woogie, the musical craze sweeping America in the 1920s.
The first half of the concert, however, was more reserved focusing on Britten and featuring the Sinfonia da Requiem (dedicated to the composer’s parents) and the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Britten, in fact, wrote the Sinfonia (his largest purely orchestral work) in 1940 at the age of 26 and at its world première at Carnegie Hall in March 1941 with the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli, it was well received. In this fine and detailed performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Wilson it found great favour, too.
Following the work’s première a further performance was arranged in Boston under Serge Koussevitzky which ultimately led to the commission of Peter Grimes from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation.
The opening bars of the Sinfonia, comprising strong percussive sounds coupled with the solemnity of the woodwind, bring to the fore Britten’s sensitivity to conflict and, indeed, reflected his pacifist viewpoint while the tightly-played higher-register strings and screaming brass that followed reminded one of the horrors and devastation of war. In stark contrast, the last movement (Requiem aeternam) offered a more rounded and serene sound particularly in the middle section in which the strings wallowed in a relaxed and flowing melody. When the work came to its quiet and unassuming end, punctuated by one long-lasting note held by the clarinet, it hinted, perhaps, at a brighter future.
The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo– a song-cycle composed by Britten in 1940 for Peter Pears and a work that the singer considered one of the greatest works the composer had given him – was heard on this occasion in a new orchestral version (an Aldeburgh commission) by Colin Matthews, who acted as an assistant to Britten for many years and worked closely, too, with Imogen Holst.
Robert Murray was the chosen soloist and his strong and eloquent tenor voice radiated round the vastness of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall with consummate ease that more than endeared the audience to the singer’s musical prowess and, indeed, to the sonnets themselves which speak so tenderly of love.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra made a weekend of it and I hope that some of its members enjoyed an ‘out-of-the-paper’ fish-and-chip supper from Aldeburgh’s well-appointed fish shop. However, their second concert at Snape offered a rich and varied programme opening with a strong and pleasing interpretation of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes while Russian-born pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, proved an exceptional soloist in Britten’s Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra composed in 1940 and a work seldom heard.
The programme was completed by a 16-minute piece by Bernstein entitled ‘Ḥalil’, a work for flute and chamber orchestra composed in 1981 in memory of the young Israeli flautist, Yadin Tanenbaum, who was killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur war at the Suez Canal. Premièred at the Sultan’s Pool, Jerusalem, in May 1981, the soloist was Jean-Pierre Rampal with Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic. In this performance, though, American-born, Claire Chase – who made her début with the San Diego Symphony at the age 14 in 1992 – was the soloist. Her breath control and technique were simply immaculate and it would be hard to come across a better performance of a work which is largely unknown and not frequently played.
The concert also included Copland’s lively and boisterous Billy the Kid suite conducted with flair and preciseness by John Wilson whose personality and confidence not only reached out to his players but also to members of the audience. Maestro Wilson seems as happy in charge of a major symphony orchestra as he is with his own show-stopping show-biz orchestra, The John Wilson Orchestra, who also occupied the Maltings over the weekend delivering an all-Bernstein programme comprising a selection of numbers from some of the composer’s well-known shows such as West Side Story and On the Town to those lesser-known ‘beauties’ as Trouble in Tahiti and The Skin of Our Teeth.
The Aldeburgh Festival runs until Sunday 24th June.
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Tony Cooper is QR‘s opera critic