Saturday, 21 March 2009

Aldeburgh Festival 2009- big on the European circuit

The Aldeburgh Festival is very much a fixture on the European music circuit. Far more than any other British composer, Britten saw himself as European at heart, so the Aldeburgh Festival has always had an international, progressive outlook, with strong connections abroad. Londoners don't know what treasures they have "in their own backyard".

Britten's ideals come to fruit in this year's Festival, titled "Glitter of Waves". It's Pierre-Laurent Aimard's first full year as artistic director, and he brings sharp new focus. Even the buildings have been extended to provide new theatres and workshops, at last fulfilling Britten's vision for Snape.

Harrison Birtwistle's two new chamber opera set the tone. Dowland's Semper Dowland, semper dolens, is "theatre of melancholy, in which Birtwistle adapts Dowland's Seven Teares figured in Seven Pavanes and interweaves them with Dowland's songs. Early English music reinvigorated with modern British music.

The big premiere is The Corridor, a scena for soprano, tenor and six instruments. As Orpheus and Eurydice escape the Underworld, he looks back on her despite being warned not to do so, and he loses her forever. "I see the Corridor as a single moment from the Orpheus story magnified, like a photographic blow-up", says Birtwistle. Given his long standing fascination with primeval myth this should be interesting. Libretto is by David Harsent, who wrote The Minotaur and other important Birtwistle milestones, so expect limpid, lucid poetry in direct modern speech - extremely moving on its own terms. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton sing the lead roles. The London Sinfonietta, Britain's best modern music ensemble, will perform. VERY high profile indeed. Even if it's repeated in London, seeing it first at Aldeburgh is part of the experience, for it was here 41 years ago that Britten and Birtwistle met. Britten apparently wasn't impressed. But Birtwistle's come a long way since Punch and Judy. Perhaps Britten would now be pleased, for Birtwistle has developed and is now an Elder Statesman himself, undisputedly this country's foremost opera composer.

Next morning there's another Sinfonietta concert featuring bits of The Io Passion, and the 3 Settings of Celan - Claire Booth whom we hear everywhere and for good reason! Then Harrison's Clocks where Hideki Nagano plays the brilliant Birtwistle piece as part of an installation around the new buildings at Snape - very unusual. That same evening, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, with ensembles, will produce a "free thinking musical fantasy". Moto perpetuo movements from Beethoven and Bartok are interlaced with serene moments from Brahms and Messiaen. The finale is Ligeti. Aimard excels in imaginative juxtapositions like this - see the links on right for what he did last year at Aldeburgh with Bach and Kurtag. That's just the first weekend, 12th and 13th June.

The following week starts with a Britten song symposium, more performances of the Birtwistle operas, and some very interesting recitals including Christiane Oelze, (highly recommended!), Zimmermann, and Exaudi. Vladimir Jurowski conducts a chamber orchestra on Wednesday 15th - Gabrieli, Stravinsky and Birtwistle. The big concert on Friday night, 19th June, has George Benjamin conduct the BBCSO, in two premieres, Julian Anderson's Fantasias and Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra - with Aimard as soloist. Of course this will be broadcast, but the atmosphere at Snape is part of the fun, you want to "be" there.

Elliott Carter is the focus of the second week. In fact, he's planning to be there in person, scheduled to talk with Aimard, with whom he goes back decades. Carter's presence alone should make attendance compulsory, for he is an icon. He's closely connected to so many involved with this Festival, including Oliver Knussen who will be conducting the keynote Saturday night concert on Saturday 20th. This features yet another Carter premiere, On Conversing with Paradise, a song cycle to poems by Ezra Pound, for baritone and orchestra. This is rumoured to be powerful stuff. In recent years, Carter's style has distilled into intense zen-like depths, perhaps well suited to Pound's verse, which Carter has long loved.

This second week is the week to come for more Elliot Carter, Birtwistle and Thomas Adès chamber music. Ian Bostridge, Louis Lortie, Mark Padmore and Nicholas Daniel will appear in recital, too. The blockbuster concerts, though, will be the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, one of the hottest bands in Europe. This was founded by Claudio Abbado. Daniel Harding's been seminally involved since 1998. He's now principal conductor, but their first concert on 25th (Hadyn, Ligeti, Birtwistle) will be conducted by Susanna Mälkki, the charismatic conductor of Ensemble Intercontemporain. Aimard plays Birtwistle's Slow Frieze. Aimard conducts the second concert on 27th, another eclectic mix, Haydn, Stockhausen and Beethoven. Since the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is exceptionally good, and rarely heard in the UK, these are concerts that shouldn't be missed.

Then, on Sunday 28th, Masaaki Suzuki returns to conduct Bach's St Matthew's Passion. Suzuki's Bach is legendary. He's working with the Britten-Pears Orchestra. Its members are young, but enthusiastic. Britten and Pears would be thrilled.

Seats sell fast and accommodation gets hard to book, so check Aldeburgh Music sooner not later.

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