Aldeburgh is a very special place at any time of the year, but during the Festival it takes on an added dimension. Benjamin Britten becomes such a presence, and even my hotel, the White Lion right on the beach, radiates its place as one of the locations of Peter Grimes, along with the Moot Hall, just a few yards away – not to mention the shacks where the nightly fish-catches are speedily smoked, skinned and gutted, or dressed.
These were a blissful four days in my reviewing calendar, beginning with an evocative afternoon at the Red House (home to Britten and Peter Pears), in which young artists from the Britten Pears Young Artists Scheme, informatively introduced by Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library, Britten Pears Arts, revealed Britten’s early and continuing fascination with the viola, along with the influence of his teacher Frank Bridge.
Among the immensely talented performers, violist Miguel Sobrinho and accompanist (one of three) Hebba Benyaghala were particularly outstanding (****).
The charming Aldeburgh Cinema, one of the oldest in the country still working, hosted a screening of the 1966 BBC filming of Billy Budd, an absolutely amazing production of that harrowing opera. Thanks to the format we could experience both the intimate motivations of the polarised characters, the agonised good (Peter Pears’ definitive “starry” Captain Vere) and self-loathingly evil, the almost Fafner-like malevolence of Michael Langdon’s Claggart, as well as the huge crowd scenes, bustling with activity as skirmishes against the Napoleonic navy approached.
It was fun spotting the young talents emerging in the cast, including John Shirley-Quirk, Robert Tear, and above all, Peter Glossop, whose stature, generosity and sheer undemanding attractiveness as Billy Budd created an example very difficult for successors to emulate.(*****)
The excitement in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall that evening was overwhelming, looking forward to a visit from beloved regulars the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their brand-new principal conductor Kazuki Yamada; nothing disappointed, but indeed all expectations were surpassed, orchestra giving its all in youthful freshness and enthusiasm, Yamada expending so much selfless energy in delineating absolutely every telling detail in the scores in question.
We began with Holst’s Japanese Suite (perhaps a sop to the orchestra’s forthcoming tour of Japan, Yamada taking his orchestra back home to meet his folks). There is nothing in this piece remotely identifiable as Holst (despite his abiding interest in oriental subjects), but it was pleasant enough listening, conscientiously delivered.
Totally identifiable as to its composer was the wonderful Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by local boy Benjamin Britten. Ian Bostridge was the tenor, his delivery of these nocturnal texts actually physical in their communication, and Elspeth Dutch, CBSO principal horn, brought such a range of colour and articulation to her evocative partnership with the singer.
Among all the gripping highlights was “Dirge”, Bostridge mesmeric, Dutch increasingly catatonic, and the CBSO double-basses grindingly implacable.
Finally came Elgar’s First Symphony, Yamada the latest in a long string of Japanese conductors displaying a huge empathy for this most English of composers, and poised to take it back to his own homeland. His immediate identification with the troubled soul underlying much of this symphony was palpable, so the ultimate triumph, so effortfully arrived at, was wonderfully achieved. Just before the end of that journey, the wonderful episode in which the strings gradually build (in halved time) the finale’s opening theme, moulding it into a heart-wrenching episode over rippling harps, will live long in the memory. (*****)
The next evening’s visit from the BBC Symphony Orchestra came with a couple of addenda: replacing the announced conductor was the much-vaunted Hannu Lintu, and there was an added prelude to the programme, Ciel d’hiver, by the recently-passed Kaija Saariaho.
This stellar, concentrated piece (with shades of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question), tightly delivered, knocked what followed brutally into touch. Anna Thorsvaldsdottir’s AION, here receiving its UK premiere, proved a 45-minute essay in three-movement tedium, paint drying with the occasional droplet of interest, such as a couple of welcome melodic surges.
There was no sustained rhythmic activity to enliven the piece (and engage the attention of the players), there was predictable resource to gimmicky string rhetoric, and any time we felt the ,music was moving towards something positive our expectations were knocked back. For some unaccountable reason the performance received an enthusiastic ovation – acclaiming the Emperor’s New Clothes?
Lintu had conducted the first half with his hands, their distortions evoking yearnings for the past-master of batonless conducting, Pierre Boulez. his laconic fingers fluttering to such effect, and creating a virtual second pinkie – and he conducted The Ring thus!
For Mahler’s First Symphony Lintu did indeed use a baton, but this emerged an effortful account nevertheless. For all its youthful ardour, the work needs to be delivered with a natural grace which Lintu was unable to find. Highlights were the BBCSO’s principal double-bass at the start of the third movement, whiskery and macabre, and the horns throughout; the sight of all eight of them standing at the finale’s denouement was impressive indeed. (***)
Both these orchestral concerts had been delivered on the flat, jeopardising balance, but for Saturday’s concert from the remarkable Sinfonia of London there were risers, assisting the commercial filming thereof.
John Wilson was the conductor, relishing the piquant orchestrations of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, controlling the epic grandiosity of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and providing attentive and sensitive accompaniments to Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez, here performed for the first time in their orchestra version – such delicate tracery in the figurations! Baritone soloist Roderick Williams brought insight and nuance to his delivery, with the warm intelligence we have come to expect from this much-loved performer.
Finally came Rachmaninov’s swansong, the Symphonic Dances, lithe and muscular, but also poignantly nostalgic (such an eloquent saxophone in the opening movement). We could not escape, of course, the composer’s Dies Irae signature tune, and how grippingly did the violas dig into its announcement towards the end of the finale! Wilson and I have already agreed to differ over the tam-tam’s concluding stroke at the very end. He cuts it short, I think it should die away into the ether (check the score). *****