ENDNOTES – Farewelling Aldeburgh 2013
STUART MILLSON enjoys the last weekend of the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival and several enticing new CDs
Durham Cathedral Choristers at Aldeburgh * New work by Wolfgang Rihm performed at Snape * Cello sonatas by Rachmaninov, Delius and Bridge * Exciting new recording of Britten Piano Concerto
The final weekend of the Aldeburgh Festival brought unsettled, but in the end poignant summer sunshine; in a sky washed through by earlier showers and sea-breezes, and dominated by large white clouds moving slowly across a clear blue heaven. Weather, just like place, is important for mood and for music. The venue of Aldeburgh Parish Church (St. Peter and St. Paul) stands at the top of a slight hill, which leads down to Crabbe Street and the town beach. Britten used the church many times and it continues to play a part in the annual festival of music and the arts, although it is the modern concert hall at Snape Maltings which is the headquarters and spiritual home of this remarkable two-week creative undertaking.
On Saturday 22nd June, the church welcomed the Durham Cathedral Choir – although I have to point out that despite the inclusion of works by Byrd, Weelkes, Britten, Tippett, James MacMillan and Edgar Bainton, this performance (oddly) was not an official part of the Festival. Under the direction of James Lancelot, with Francesca Massey (organist), the Durham choristers performed with profound concentration, creating a sound which had all the glory and the intimacy of the English church tradition. May I also point out, on a personal note, that my interest in the evening was given additional weight by the fact that my god-daughter is a member of the choristers. How curious, or perhaps, how fitting, that she shares her name with the patron saint of music! In the slanted light of the church, with its arches, stained glass, civic decoration, flags honouring the fallen and general sense of an old, faraway world of dreams and the dream of the world to come, the anthems and motets of J.S. Bach, Anton Bruckner and Henry Purcell had a living warmth and radiance. Full marks to James Lancelot for connecting the English worlds of Purcell (17th century) and Benjamin Britten (20th century) – a connection that was to be explored the following day at the Snape Maltings.
Sunday afternoon at Snape – and on the platform, the white-tie-and-tails Halle Orchestra, under the baton of the earnest Sir Mark Elder, in his now trademark long black shirt, fastened at the neck, but with no bow tie! Yet Sir Mark, despite this concession to modernity, walks with all the gravity of an elder (forgive the pun) statesman of British music, which is exactly what he is. The man is at the height of his fame and achievement, and there is no doubting his utter commitment to what he is doing: his thorough preparation and execution of often difficult and lesser-known scores; his belief in music education and understanding – his readiness to talk to the audience about the pieces he is about to play, such as Britten’s highly-challenging Our Hunting Fathers (Op. Eight) – with Emma Bell, soprano, clearly and with piercing drama, taking us through the disjointed angles, politically-shaded tensions, upheavals and dances of death – and rats – of this 1936, strongly Auden-influenced sequence.
Even more challenging was the second-half’s opening work, the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Tribute (Uber der Linie Vlll)* of 2013 – a 20-minute showpiece for orchestra that took this particular member of the audience to a gloomy Wagnerian forest, yet through the strange prism of 20th/21st-century stresses and strains. Fortunately, the sunny interval, the beautiful clear light of the late afternoon, and the pastel colours of the reed-beds and the Snape landscape, cleared the mind before this second journey of the day into musical intensity and extremes. And what an incredible piece Wolfgang Rihm has created: a dark orchestral landscape, with a chasm of clanging percussion – a Schoenberg-like descent into discord, but then a change of mood, with a warmer, Mahlerian breath of air, a slower section for strings, and then powerful motor-rhythms recalling, perhaps, The Rite of Spring – all leading to a slow, touching ending played mainly on front-desk strings, with a flute floating in the distance. Somehow, it reminded me of the feeling one might have at the end of Britten’s own Dowland-influenced Lachrymae (for strings and solo viola): a sense of music, fading into thin air, on a Sunday afternoon at the edge of England. Was this Rihm’s own lachrymae? Possibly. Balint Andras Varga’s programme note gives an explanation:
… A Tribute… leaves the identity of the dedicatee open. In his centenary year, Benjamin Britten would be an obvious choice… In truth, Wolfgang Rihm has eschewed in the music any direct reference to Britten. Rihm sees his new composition as a homage to English music in general: it is a sign of his affection for the composers and their music this island has given to the world. Benjamin Britten stands as a symbol of them all.
To conclude the Festival, Sir Mark Elder and his players performed that most English of works, and possibly Britten’s best-known piece: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell) – in which a great, noble, stately but never bombastic tune by Purcell is subjected to all manner of dissection, ornamentation and mutation by the instruments of the modern symphony orchestra; and then re-assembled for a mighty, sweeping-all-before-it peroration – phrases and themes tossed here and there by Britten’s strings, which are made to perform spine-tingling surges up and down the scales; and side-drums, timpani, cymbals, trumpets and horns affirming Purcell’s somehow “national” tune. With a surprise restoration of the original narration (the introductions to each section spoken by an excellent new Radio 3 presenter whose name has escaped me!), the Festival ended on the proverbial high-note! One amusing, but perhaps rather worrying thing… our Radio 3 man was, with great emphasis, cheerfulness and wit, narrating a script, written in 1945, with young people firmly in mind. His address to the “young people” of the audience caused some mirth: hardly anyone seemed to be under the age of 40. One can only hope that Sir Mark Elder’s modern crusade for music education helps to create an audience for the future.
And so to the Snape car park, and home along the A12; but happily, with some fine new recordings of cello sonatas to enjoy, all on the VIF Records label. The Romantic Cello, no less – two CDs, and a treasury of music played by Philip Handy (cello) and Robert Markham, his piano accompanist. Excellent and rich recordings (performed in Beaulieu Abbey, and obviously a wonderful venue for chamber music) – and satisfying works, too – sonatas by Frank Bridge, Delius, John Ireland, the American, Samuel Barber, and that great master of Russian romanticism, Rachmaninov, whose four-movement work for Cello and Piano has all the nocturnal brooding, and quick, stabbing energy which lovers of his symphonic works would appreciate. Bridge’s Cello Sonata has long been a favourite of mine, its dark saying evoking a wintry, or solemn landscape, and it might have been a good idea to have recorded it alongside Debussy’s defiant, melancholic work for the same instruments, conceived during the Great War. I can remember hearing the Bridge Sonata on German radio, during a holiday to that country, some 25 years ago; and it is somehow one of those profoundly English works that holds its own among the continental late-romantic, early-20th-century mainstream. Its ending – a curious and passionate declamation, which is suddenly repeated – like someone re-emphasising the same words at the end of a serious speech – never fails to thrill.
Finally, if you want to enjoy Britten’s music now that the sixty-sixth Aldeburgh Festival has come to an end, what better choice than a new CD from Chandos records, which features the Piano Concerto (breathtakingly performed by Howard Shelley) and the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 15, in which Tasmin Little takes the solo role. Both soloists are supported by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, under Edward Gardner (a former assistant to Mark Elder). The Piano Concerto is a child of the 1930s, but the piece underwent a revision in 1945 – and the recording appears with the revised third movement and a separate performance of the original part of the work. The Piano Concerto is played with sharp attack and zest – in fact, the first movement leaps off the page (or out of the CD player) in a dazzling realisation, made even more invigorating as an experience by a recording that seems to place the listener right by the orchestra and pianist. But what I particularly like about this 33-minute Prokofiev/Shostakovich-like masterpiece is the surprising final movement – the use by Britten of a style and tune which could almost have come from the pen of Malcolm Arnold, or to be more precise, Malcolm Arnold writing for a St. Trinian’s film! The Musical Times of 1938 even asked of “Mr. Britten”: “How did he come to write the tune of the last movement?” I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that the music could be an ideal accompaniment for the appearance of the famous, rather disreputable, but likeable George Cole character. An unexpected delight.
STUART MILLSON is the QR‘s classical music editor
NB *Uber die Linie – according to programme notes by composer, Colin Matthews, for Wolfgang Rihm, Linie denotes “line” or “limit”
The Halle Orchestra concert from Snape will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on 30th June
VIF Records have issued “The Romantic Cello” on two CDs, VRCD076 & VCRD082
Britten’s Piano Concerto can be ordered from Chandos Records, catalogue number: CHAN 10764