Sunday, 24 November 2013

Unorthodox Symphonist Britten 100 Centenary Aldeburgh Knussen

The legacy of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lives on in Aldeburgh with the Britten-Pears Foundation. At the Maltings, Snape, in the concert hall Britten and Pears loved so dearly, Oliver Knussen conducted the keynote concert of the Aldeburgh Music weekend marking Britten's 100th birthday. Given the significance of the occasion, some conductors might have opted for safe and solemn, but Knussen's interpretation was innovative, even dangerous, reaching into the maelstrom of Britten's visionary darkness.  Yet it was also exceptionally beautiful, suggesting the majesty of Nature, and the skies and seas around Aldeburgh. Those who deride Britten because he didn't write formal, conventional symphonies need to hear Knussen transform the piece. The Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia may derive from Peter Grimes but this is no mere suite based on an opera. Knussen shows how it becomes a pure (five movement) symphonic masterpiece on its own terms.

The.opening chords of "Dawn" shine with almost preternatural brightness. It feels cosmic, more than a picture of the sun breaking through clouds. We feel the gravitational pull of currents stronger than the tides of the sea. "Sunday Morning" didn't feel religious (and the pious of the Borough don't practise Christian values). When the lively upwards passages shimmered, I thought of Apollo, and Tadzio dancing on the beach, images much more central to Britten's inspiration than the grizzled Peter Grimes. The viola solo in "Moonlight" was exquisite, its mystery undercut by the tense, brisk brass and scurrying strings. Oddly enough, I thought I heard echoes of the Rite of Spring, which isn't inappropriate, as the sacrifical "Storm" is about to break loose.When the viola returns, it feels achingly poignant. The surging tensions were well judged, so the woodwind figures emerged all the brighter. Knussen is a master of contemporary repertoire: he shaped the jagged edges of the Storm so the music exploded in wild dissonance, surging forward to the shocking, sudden conclusion. There's nothing "picturesque" about Knussen's Sea Interludes. He's no tourist. He inhabits Aldeburgh and Britten's music like a native.

Knussen programmes are always esoteric. It was fascinating to hear the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia (op 33a and 3b) together with the Spring Symphony (op 44, 1949). Britten's ideas on symphonic form were heterodox, so highly original that they still confound. Forget the usual old clichés about Mahler, which are red herrings that obscure its true originality.Britten knew Mahler long before Donald Mitchell did. Like so much Britten wrote, it can be approached on different, contradictory levels. its sprawling structure brings together symphony, chorale, western tradition, bird song and show tunes, Latin, English and Middle English. Of course it's a showpiece, the sort of thing Copland or Leonard Bernstein might have liked to have written. The choristers whistle and the soloists twitter.  But it's also satire. Britten is sending up the idea of a symphony "containing the world", whatever that meant in the first place. "Big", he's suggesting, doesn't mean "better".There are also parallels with the Simple Symphony, where Britten alludes to cartoons, and to Paul Bunyan. Perhaps Britten is commenting on American music and the McCarthy era. It's a much more complex piece than meets the casual ear, and filled with cryptic hints.. Listen carefully to Stephen Johnson's analysis HERE ,a superb introduction to Britten's irony. Knussen himself loves whimsy. Who else could have written Higgelty Piggelty Pop! (more here),.He also knows American music. A fabulously fun performance which didn't conceal the bitterness within. "Rejoice" sing the voices, but the brass bleats raspberries.

Britten's  Cantata Academica (op 62, 1959) extended the concept of Britten as unorthodox symphonist. This piece was commissioned by Paul Sacher, so it automatically earns Britten a place among the great and good of modern European composers. It's also by no means a typical "academic overture" weighed down by pomp and solemnity. It's theatrical, for one thing. As the dons of Basel University gather in their finery, the piece entertains them with tableaux of Basel's past. Again, Britten is monkeying about with form, combining mock medieval with modern.

Oliver Knussen was involved with the Aldeburgh Music Festival for longer than most, bar Britten and Pears themselves. Fundamental to the Britten-Pears ethos is the idea that music should not fossilize but grow. Thus, as part of the Britten tribute, Knussen programmed a new commission by Ryan Wigglesworth, Locke's Theatre, receiving its world premiere. Wigglesworth was attracted to Matthew Locke's "idiosyncratic and daringly advanced harmonic and rhythmic language...... (and  the) very rawness and directness of Locke’s theatre music". Wigglesworth's layering of Jacobean non-naturalism with modern clarity is very different from the way Britten adapted Tudor and Stuart music. It's not pastiche,  but firmly constructed. and original.

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