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Aldeburgh Festival (10) : Britten Sinfonia, cond. Christoph Poppen, Mary Plazas - soprano, Neal Davies - bass, Snape Maltings 16.06.2006 8PM (JW)


Richard Causton (b. 1971) Saraband/ The Way the World Ends

'Les Iluminations'

Shostakovitch  Symphony No 14


and New Works from the 2005 Contemporary Performance and Composition Course at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, Jubilee Hall, 16.06.2006, 2.30 pm


The new work which opened this concert was in two distinct sections, with the common feature of having the violins being pitted against the other instruments musically. The first part was smooth, resonant yet exciting, the second had a more delicate and ethereal quality.


This was followed by Britten's setting of poems by Apollinaire, which had a dynamic start with strong attack. The soprano had a powerful and expressive voice which suited the music well, particularly the fourth and seventh sections, and the orchestra had a rich warm sound. This work showed that the Britten Sinfonia are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They are best known for their commissioning of new works, such as their collaborations with the pianist Joanna Macgregor, but are becoming an exciting and dynamic ensemble across a wider range of repertoire. This performance of the founder's work at Aldeburgh was particularly commendable, and in my opinion the best piece of this evening's concert. Shouts of 'bravo' form the audience followed the work's ending in a packed Snape Maltings Hall.


The Shostakovitch 14 is a powerful intense work and all the more so in this relatively intimate space. The account given this evening was moving, emotional and heartfelt. Whilst the orchestra retained a sharp, clean sound  and a crisp pace, the overall effect was one common in fringe theatre venues - a dark intense work in an intimate space where the audience is close to the performers. At times this was little short of claustrophobic; it meant that this was a very individual performance of a work which is getting plenty of airing in this anniversary year, and some listeners may prefer a more dignified perfomance or a distinctively Russian sound.


Although I initially thought Neal Davis had too 'English' a sound to be ideal in this part, as the work progressed I was much more impressed with his performance than my initial impressions had suggested. He was particularly good in the sixth movement, which also had fine playing from the lower strings, and in the eighth. Other  sections deserving of special mention are the cello playing in th ninth, the eleventh movement and the powerful closing. The principal cellist and bass player took individual bows, together with the singers, as strong applause closed this powerful evening. The Britten Sinfonia are a group to watch, and will be the subject of a separate feature.


Earlier in the day, in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall, the Festival's original venue, there had been a concert of works by composers from last year's Contemporary Performance and Composition course at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme.  Supporting and developing young musicians and composers talents is a very important part of Aldeburgh's work, and one which is being significantly extended at the moment, for example through the residency programme. This particular programme helps to bridge the gap between a youth, training or college ensemble and independent professional practice. Judging by today's performance, they are making a good job of this ! A wide variety of work was showcased, ranging from fanfares for brass to innovative electro-acoustic work.


Particularly commendable for general professionalism and panache was Geoffrey Paterson, a former Principal Conductor of Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra, who conducted his own work with aplomb. It is a delight to hear that this talented young man is taking up the Alexander Gibson conducting scholarship at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He is definitely someone to watch.

It is also good to see that young women as well as young men are composing classical music, a field in which they have traditionally been found in only very small numbers. Elspeth Brooke, whose interesting
Contrary Orbits, which has a dramatic ending for solo trumpet in 'last post' style' , was performed early in the proceedings, has written several theatre and ballet scores as well as receiving commissions from the BBC Singers and the Clerks' Group.  Helen Grime, the composer of the penultimate piece on this programme, Yksitoista, (the Finnish for eleven. Ed) has written a prize-winning concerto for oboe, an instrument she plays herself, and which features prominently in this piece. She has also been commissioned by Radio Three to write an innovative work for 100 violas.


The afternoon closed with a twelve-minute work from Colin Matthews who, in addition to being one of this years features composers, is also one of the tutors for this programme. 'Contraflow', his piece, was commisisoned by the Huddersfield Festival in 1992, and consists of a scherzo and trio in which the second movement slows and the scherzo is then repeated in reverse. Within this there is a series of miniature concertinos for each member of the ensemble. 


A good audience for this event showed support for this part of Aldeburgh's work from festival-goers. They were warmly encouraging to the composers and performers whose work was showcased.


Julie Williams


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