ENDNOTES, July 2016

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

ENDNOTES, July 2016

In this edition: the sixty-ninth Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, reviewed by Stuart Millson

The pre-eminent English composer, Benjamin Britten, founded his music festival on the Suffolk coast in 1948. Rather than British musicians attending opera and concerts abroad, why don’t we – asked Britten’s artistic collaborator, the tenor Peter Pears – make our own festival here in England? At first, Britten’s concerts took place in churches and small halls, but by the end of the 1960’s work had begun on converting an old maltings building by the Alde Bridge at Snape into a world-class concert hall. It continues to offer a strange feeling: one emerges at the interval from a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra or the Monteverdi Choir, not into a world of crowded metropolitan streets and wailing sirens (the usual post-concert experience), but into a vista of rural peace and reed-beds, walkers and ornithologists, North Sea clouds and dreamy horizons.

The QR was present for three performances at this year’s Festival (presided over by arts administrators of the calibre of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and former Proms Director, Roger Wright) – the first being a performance by the BBC SO conducted by composer, Oliver Knussen, a man of wide musical sympathies and known for his radical, thought-provoking programming. The concert began, though, not with a modern work but a piece that did not seem at all like standard Aldeburgh fare: the orchestration by Elgar of the C minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 537 of Johann Sebastian Bach. Unlike Bach, Elgar, it is said, was not really a composer much admired by Britten, whose early life and pronouncements were characterised by a rebellion against the Britishness associated with Elgarian sentiment. However, Britten – something of a social conservative in middle-age – changed his attitude to the Worcestershire composer, seeing the troubled mind and spiritual yearning behind the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ façade and setting down two splendid, classic recordings of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro (recorded at Snape Maltings with the English Chamber Orchestra) and The Dream of Gerontius with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It was, therefore, fitting that the sixty-ninth Aldeburgh Festival began with this stately, Gothic re-imagining from 1921 of Bach’s 1708 Fantasia.

In Ken Russell’s early Monitor film for the BBC – Elgar – there is a scene in which the composer, now a widower and demoralised by the aftermath of the Great War gains solace in his dark, empty house from an interest in science, in the abstract, perfect patterns that he saw through the lens of his microscope. For this sequence, Russell cleverly used the Bach orchestration as an accompaniment: the classical purity of Bach brought into a new focus by a composer still just able to compose after the trauma of the 20th-century’s first industrially-conceived world war.

The second work in the Friday night concert was – again (on the face of it) – an unusual choice, Butterworth’s eve-of-World-War 1 rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad. Butterworth, an Edwardian imperialist, pipe-smoker and folk-dancer (again, the opposite of Britten) was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme, three years after completing his Housman-inspired piece; played as it was that evening in Snape with tremendous mastery, orchestral refinement, and deep, searching sympathy by Knussen and the orchestra. Yet in the monochrome landscape of this brooding, lost England, Butterworth and his conductor almost took us into the world of Britten’s War Requiem.

The third work brought us back to a more authentic Aldeburgh, and provided a perfect contemporary link to the previous pieces: Gary Carpenter (born 1951) and a world premiere performance of his 15-minute-long orchestral piece, Willie Stock – evoking “ghost legions” (a quotation and superscription from D.H. Lawrence). The composer’s programme note explained a very personal resonance for the music; the title referring to his uncle, Rifleman ‘Willie’ Stock, killed in 1918, and serving in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps through the Somme campaigns. The work began in a vein very similar to that of the eerie, yet commanding opening of the second movement of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony; Carpenter creating a nocturnal fanfare, but with a degree of dissonance and continuing darkness that made itself felt through the course of this compelling, cohesive, compact work. At its finale, a prolonged, sinister rattling from the side drum left us in suspension – as if the ghosts of all those lost Shropshire lads and Willie Stocks were still there, mustering and marshalling on the battlefield. An extraordinary piece.

Oliver Knussen also gave us another fine modern work, Stone Dancer by the young British composer (born 1982), Charlotte Bray – inspired by the futurist sculpture of Gaudier-Brzeska. Conveying a “muscular undulating movement” and “Pagan energy” (to quote the composer’s own synopsis), ideas seemed to be ricocheting through the orchestra – the BBC SO (surely our country’s leading specialists in modernism) clearly relishing the chance to perform such liberating, interesting new and exciting music.

The following Saturday, the audience filed in to the smaller Britten Studio, which is just a short stroll from the main Snape Malting building, this time to hear Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin, with piano accompanist, James Baillieu (fresh from his triumph at the English Music Festival with Kathryn Rudge). World War One cast its shadow once more, with Debussy’s astringent Violin Sonata of 1916-17 – a work of the 20th-century rising from the scarred landscape of France, destroyed in a final throw of warfare on the part of Europe’s 19th-century powers. At about the same time, Elgar in a spirit of withdrawal and seeking a new, more reduced musical language, had been drawn to the woods of Sussex; and by 1918 had written some of his finest works, most notably the lengthy Piano Quintet (containing both elegy and a torrent of energy) and the Violin Sonata – which Tamsin and James shaped into a performance which tried and succeeded in capturing this most elusive of works.

Likeness, written this year, by Freya Waley-Cohen (b. 1989) was the one truly contemporary work in the recital and was a thoughtful, lyrical and tonal experience, especially when compared (at least to my taste) to some disjointed Elliott Carter earlier on. A remarkable construction, the piece saw our violinist playing alongside five recorded parts, broadcast from the impressive speaker system of the Britten Studio – a dream-like scenario and a technical, aural novelty.

My visit to the Festival ended on what was a grey Saturday afternoon at Orford Church, the Heath Quartet, with guitarist Sean Shibe and tenor, Robert Murray offering a cornucopia of Britten and Tippett: Britten’s early Three Divertimenti, taut with energy; and Tippett’s Songs for Achilles from 1961 – another exploration of war and the psychology of the man at arms. But peace descended in the form of a Nocturnal sequence for solo guitar (by Britten) after John Dowland – Sean Shibe sending perfect droplets of sound, echoes of Dowland’s England of lutes and churches, into the quiet spaces of St. Bartholomew’s, the fine building which keeps watch over the coast and country of Suffolk.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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