Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Aldeburgh : new buildings, new Birtwistle operas

Why did Britten and Pears choose Aldeburgh? Britten grew up on this coast and its spirit infuses his music. There are few cosy harbours here and the North Sea wind blasts across the plain. Like the landscape, Britten isn't cuddly, but a product of tougher climes. He wanted Aldeburgh because it wasn't London, but remote enough that musicians could get away from the distractions of the city, and focus on the purity of their art. The new building at Snape extend the Maltings, so it is more than ever a self-contained community, dedicated to excellence.

The new studios are built where the old grainstore once stood, again an appropriate metaphor for Britten's music : new work, with ancient foundations. So it was good that Sir Harrison Birtwistle's two new operas should open the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival, linking past and present.

Britten was passionate about early English music, where formal simplicity belies depth of feeling. So Harrison Birtwistle's Semper Dowland, semper dolens taps into ancient tradition. Dowland's Seven Teares figured in seven passionate Pavanes is, to Birtwistle, "unique in the history of music". The basic unit is a song Lacrimae, which is set in seven versions, with the same chord sequence, each only a slight variation on the former, so the whole flows endlessly like the tears in the text. "It's like making music into a three dimensional object", says Birtwistle, "like seeing something in different facets".

In a musical puzzle piece like this, simplicity is of the essence. Dowland played the lute and sang it himself to small audiences. Mark Padmore sings, accompanied by austere yet limpid harp, a lute writ large with deeper sonorities. At critical moments, low voiced murmurs from bass clarinet, viola and alto flute, then sudden lyrical flights on piccolo. It's a mood piece, its impact diffused in a celebratory setting like the opening of the 2009 Festival. But perhaps that's why it was chosen: to remind us that celebration can be effective in a humble, reverent minor key. Look at the photo of the roof of the new Britten Studio. It's stark, plain, unpretentious, yet solid. It references the old mill and the old auditorium yet is strikingly modern. Engineering as abstract art.

The Corridor is Birtwistle's latest exploration of the Orpheus myth. Again, it springs from a simple idea, a freeze frame focus on a single, fleeting moment in the saga, when Orpheus, leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, suddenly looks back. In an instant, he loses her and she's swept back into eternity. So Birtwistle makes the split second extend into a half hour meditation on past, present and future. He layers mood on mood, infinitely extending the moment, which once past cannot be retrieved. So don't expect a storyline or development. It is a different concept of time in music.

The text is by David Harsent, whose poetry is poignant because it's direct and seemingly simple. He wrote the libretto for Birtwistle's The Minotaur where the Minotaur's fierce exterior hides his innocent, childlike soul. An even better comparison with The Corridor is The Woman and the Hare, a 15 minute jewel Harsent and Birtwistle wrote some several years ago. It's not true that Birtwistle only writes savage things like Punch and Judy. His more introspective work is delicate and intricately constructed – like his fascination with clockwork and mazes.

Indeed, Harsent's text in The Corridor is particularly elegaic and beautiful, Birtwistle hardly has to "set" it as such, for the phrases and words flow melodically. Elizabeth Atherton's was nicely warm blooded and lusty, making her fate all the more distressing. You could "hear" the vibrant young woman who dies on her wedding day. I wasn't so sure about the film projections and dancing, though I can see why the spartan staging might need extending to entertain an audience. London audiences will get a chance to see a concert performance at trhe Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6th and 7th July.

But again, the best writing is for the male voice. As the poem goes:
"...there's only one word dark enough, one word as bleak, as tear the heart, a word to blacken bring to ruin all joy or gift or courage...."

Orpheus cannot bring himself to say the word. Padmore sings the name instead, Eurydice, over and over, each time differently, as if reluctant to lose a hold of the moment.
Please see Simon Thomas's review HERE which makes excellent comparisons with Beckett.
Please also see my reviews of the two Birtwistle Proms, Silbury Air and the Mask of Orpheus - click on Birtwistle labels at right.

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