Sunday, 21 June 2009

Aldeburgh Festival - Aimard, Anderson, Benjamin, Carter, Debussy, Ravel

With Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the helm, the Aldeburgh Festival is even more than ever the place to be in terms of musical excellence. In June, in England, there's so much going, but for me. Aldeburgh takes priority because there's always something very special you don't get elsewhere.

Aldeburgh has, of course, been a cradle for British composers, but, as Britten intended, it's not insular but has a wider international outlook. So the concert on 19th June placed the UK premiere of George Benjamin's Duet for piano and Orchestra (2008), with Benjamin's spiritual forebears, Debussy, Ravel and Elliott Carter. Aimard was the soloist, Benjamin conducted, and in attendance was Elliott Carter himself, aged 100 1/2, still sprightly and full of vim. No doubt this music will be heard many times in years to come, but being present on this occasion felt like being part of a family, of a creative community such as Britten and Pears envisioned when they started the Aldeburgh Festival 62 years ago.

Indeed, Benjamin’s new piece was written specially for Aimard, and premiered last summer at Lucerne. It's a new departure for Benjamin, his first piece for piano and orchestra. Benjamin’s own notes describe it succinctly. “The piano has an enormous pitch compass and is capable of accumulating complex resonating harmonies, but each note begins to decay as soon as it it is sounded. On the other hand, stringed and wind instruments can sustain and mould their notes after the initial attack”. Thus Benjamin tries to find common ground restricting the pitch range of the piano, avoiding the higher registers where decay occurs quickly. Percussion, harp and pizzicato create attenuated sounds that meet the piano on its own ground.
The piano part isn’t elaborately flamboyant : rather it’s spare, single notes occurring in series, like flurries. It evoked the movement of birds – short, quick jerks expanding into flourish as they take flight. This programme may not have included Messiaen, but he was there, in spirit. Duet for piano and Orchestra is a different kind of concertante, where soloist and orchestra don’t interact in the usual way, but observe each other, so to speak. Then, with a punchy crescendo, it’s over. Benjamin’s music often sounds pontilliste, like detailed embroidery, but here there’s sharpness in design, and clarity of direction.
Julian Anderson's Shir Hashirim f0r soprano and orchestra was included in the programme, replacing the scheduled Fantasias.
Hearing Benjamin in the context of Debussy, Ravel and Elliott Carter demonstrated Benjamin’s roots in the French tradition. Benjamin conducted Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune with a feel for the purity beneath the langorous sensuality. Exquisite playing by the BBC SO’s principal flautist.
Elliott Carter, too, has roots in the French tradition, His father had business connections in France, so Carter grew up bilingual, spending long periods in Paris. The first of the Three Occasions celebrates the 150th anniversary of the state of Texas, so it’s exuberantly lively. If Benjamin’s approach wasn’t quire as free as the spirit of the piece, he more than compensated in the way he conducted the other two parts, Remembrance and Anniversary. Hearing the latter, on the occasion of this concert, was particularly moving as it was written to celebrate Carter’s 50th wedding anniversary. Carter and his wife Helen were extremely close : when she passed away, those who knew them worried, as one does when partnerships that close end. Benjamin brought out the tenderness of the piece beautifully. When Carter stood up, unaided, to acknowledge the applause at the end it was intensely poignant : an experience I won’t forget.
Yet Aimard’s performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was by far the highlight of the evening, musically. This also brought out the best in Benjamin and the orchestra the slow lugubrious sections full of portent: the contrabassoon solo especially well played, its sonorities evoking inchoate emotions. This is a piece I love dearly, but hearing Aimard’s intense, uncompromising fervour made it feel almost shockingly fresh and vivid. The piece was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost a hand in the First World War, career death for a dedicated pianist. Hence the manic “military” overtones, deftly executed. Passion doesn’t have to mean sentimental excess. With dignity and strength of attack, Aimard proved that one hand, playing with such defiance, is more than a match for full orchestra.
HEAR THIS CONCERT on BBC Radio 3 at 1900 on 25th June (online too)
To come TOMORROW : Elliott Carter at Aldeburgh ! watch this space LOTS on this blog about Carter
See the REVIEW here

1 comment:

Juliet said...

I'm listening to this now on Radio 3 and it's totally STUNNING.

One of the great discoveries of the Messiaen year last year was Benjamin as a conductor.

I especially enjoy hearing him conduct Ravel.