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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Aldeburgh Festival (1) Britten, Shostakovitch: The Hallé, Mark Elder (conductor), Timothy Robinson (tenor), Richard Watkin (horn) The Maltings, Snape, 10.06.2006 (AO)


Evidence that establishing an audience for classical music sustains small, independent enterprise. Picture published with permission.

Britten and Shostakovich enjoyed a mutually inspiring personal relationship, which bore fruit in their music. The first concert at Snape in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival paid tribute to both composers with two of their best known works, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and Shostakovich’s First Symphony. But at Aldeburgh, there’s always a musical challenge. Britten founded the Festival to provide an atmosphere in which the finest musicians could feel stimulated creatively and with another composer, Thomas Adès, as Artistic Director, the dynamism lives on. In a stroke of imaginative programming, the two famous pieces were set beside two rarities, Britten’s fragments In memoriam Dennis Brain, and extracts from Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age.

The Golden Age is a ballet about a heroic Soviet football team venturing into the decadent capitalist West, a xenophobic propaganda piece boosting Stalinist ambition. Programming it to kick off the Aldeburgh Festival, on the same day as the start of the World Cup, is a masterstroke of sheer genius! Furthermore, this performance at Aldeburgh is the first of many this summer – it scoops even its birthplace, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where the première of the full ballet production will be presented on June 28th. Gergiev will be bringing that production to the ENO in London in July, and the concert version will be performed at the Proms. Modestly, the Aldeburgh programme book mentions nothing of these, but the Festival has scored, indeed.

Although serving a public political purpose, the piece had personal meaning for Shostakovich as well. The composer was 23 years old at the time, and a fanatical football supporter. Moreover, he had himself just returned from his first visit to the west, to Weimar, the symbol of corrupt capitalist modernism. Shostakovich was fascinated by jazz, modern dance, agitprop cabaret, indeed the whole creative, chaotic buzz of 1920’s Germany – so very different from the repression and regimentation in soviet Russia. In writing this ballet, Shostakovich could indulge his new found musical discoveries, while ostensibly mocking them to please the Stalinist censors. He later transcribed passages for piano which could be enjoyed in relative privacy. That is perhaps why the music still rings true with a sense of enthusiastic commitment. A rapid succession of tableaux unfolds – a waltz, a polka, a tango, jerky, angular rhythms that evoke the spirit of social subversion that the “jazz age” represented, even in the decadent west. Shostakovich employs what were in 1920’s Russia, daring, “modern” instruments, like the xylophone, woodblocks, and something known as a “flexitone”. Music critics at the time hated it, though the audience relished its freedom of expression. To our ears it’s a lively, irreverent romp that makes us remember just how revolutionary “modern” music was then. Orchestras in Shostakovich’s time would have found the material unfamiliar, but the Hallé, well versed in the music of the last 80 years, appreciated it for what it was. At moments, it felt like Lulu, transformed with laughter.

It was an effort to adjust to the altogether different mood of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Moreover, there have been so many truly exceptional performances of this piece that it would be perhaps expecting too much of Robinson to supplant them. For a change, one focussed on the lushness of the strings, eerily pure and menacing at the same time. The Hallé musicians played with exquisite clarity, and it was a joy to hear how the strings and horn interacted around the voice. Watkin was impressive, the nostalgic, other worldly quality of his music particularly vivid in the pianissimo passages. Appropriately, there were quotations from the part in Britten’s fragment In Memoriam Denis Brain, for four horns and strings, edited by Colin Matthews. It’s hard to guess what the piece might have been like had Britten completed it, for all we have are sketches for an introduction and part of an allegro. There was nothing specially distinctive to spur the composer along, however much he admired Brain.

Returning to Shostakovich reinvigorated the evening. Hearing his First Symphony after the slightly later Golden Age demonstrated how far the composer had progressed in four short years. The Golden Age shows panache in the way he handles ideas, while the First Symphony seems more tentative and straightforward. Admittedly, I’m one of the few people who doesn’t like this symphony. But Elder and the Hallé presented it briskly and full of vigour, downplaying the more Disneyesque aspects. It was written by a teenager, after all, and benefits from a performance which emphasises its youthful high spirits and “see what I can do” cheekiness. And therein lies another advantage that the Aldeburgh Festival provides : the chance for London based audiences to hear a non-London based top flight orchestra. It’s such a pleasure to sense subliminal regional nuances. Of course we have the spectacular BBC Proms to bring the country, and indeed the world, together every summer. But Aldeburgh does the same, on a more low key scale. We are incredibly lucky that communal music festivals like these keep classical music in the public consciousness, encouraging and developing audiences. May we never take for granted that there are people willing to dedicate themselves to making events like this come to fruit.

Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)