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Aldeburgh Summer Festival 2009: The 62nd Festival's  Opening Weekend, 13.6.2009  (J-PJ)

This year’s Aldeburgh Festival, dubbed ‘Glitter of Waves’, marks something of a new departure. For a start, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard takes on the role of artistic director. The major part of a £16 million development programme has also been completed, providing four new performance and rehearsal spaces - the Britten, Jerwood Kiln, Harry Weinrebe and Foyle Studios. In addition, the festival sees the premières of new works by Harrison Birtwistle, whose music also featured during the opening weekend.

Saturday 13 June 11am

Birtwistle, Stravinsky, Britten and Ravel: Claire Booth (soprano)London Sinfonietta/Harrison Birtwistle, Aldeburgh Church, Aldeburgh (J-PJ)

Birtwistle: Aubades and Nocturnes from The Io Passion
Crowd, for solo harp
Settings of Celan
Stravinsky: Three Shakespeare Settings
Britten: Suite for Harp
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro

Despite Birtwistle’s prominence during this opening weekend, his music remained oddly out of place, with its rather old-fashioned dullness. This was especially true of his Aubades and Nocturnes from The Io Passion, and his song cycle, Settings of Celan. The former work was adapted from the instrumental entr’actes from his opera The Io Passion, which was premiered at Aldeburgh in 2004. Repetitive and formless, the piece moved from one indistinguishable movement to another, characterised by sinking string lines, and punctuated by predictable shrill blasts on the clarinet. His settings of words by the Romanian poet Paul Celan hardly fared better. Endlessly bowed or tremolo strings supported a plain rising and falling soprano line, interrupted again by Birtwistle’s hallmark clarinet shrieks. The only relief came when Birtwistle, conducting, skipped a couple of pages in his score and so momentarily halted the performance to find his place.

The Celan settings were matched in their lack of appeal by Stravinsky’s Three Shakespeare Settings. Written in 1953, they mark the beginning of his flirtation with serialism. Accordingly, they sounded experimentally sparse and devoid of feeling. Only the final song, ‘When daisies pied’, injected the text with humour and rhythmic vigour, particularly in the flute’s cadenza-like solo.

The pieces for harp went down much better with the audience. Crowd, Birtwistle’s seven-minute solo, was named after the word for an early English lyre-like instrument. But it also vividly depicted the changing moods of a mass body of people - from its bustle and confusion, to stark feelings of loneliness and isolation. Britten’s Suite was also beautifully played. But the highlight of the concert was Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Here the excellent players of the London Sinfonietta showed off their skills both as soloists and ensemble musicians. They moved seamlessly through the piece, from its virtuosic pyrotechnics to more introspective moments. In return they received an enthusiastic response from an appreciative audience.

Saturday 13 June 3pm

Ligeti, Birtwistle: Hidéki Nagano (piano), Hoffman Building, Snape (J-PJ)
Ligeti: Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes
Birtwistle: Chronometer for two asynchronous four-track tape
Harrison’s Clocks

The second set of performances on the opening Saturday provided an opportunity to showcase the new Britten and Jerwood Kiln Studios. Unfortunately, the music on offer contrasted poorly with the fresh, open nature of these two new venues. Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique (1962) was an amusing but outmoded exercise in ‘performance art’. The one hundred metronomes set at different tempi and released at the same time were supposed to provide a commentary on time, order and freedom. In practice it felt rather silly and pointless.

Birtwistle’s Chronometer dates from 1971, and consists of repeated patterns of chiming bells, ticking clocks and other sound effects speeded up, slowed down and overlapped with each other. In its day, Chronometer was a pioneering experiment in the use of electronic sounds and tape techniques. But despite its digital remastering, the work sounded old fashioned to modern ears attuned to digital sampling and surround sound. Harrison’s Clocks for piano (composed 1997-98) was named after the eighteenth century clockmaker John Harrison who invented the marine chronometer, the key to accurate estimation of longitude at sea. The work was meant to be a response to the mechanics of time keeping. But despite Hidéki Nagano’s concentrated playing, its cold, bland, formless qualities meant that much of the audience spend their time counting down the minutes and staring at their own watches in anticipation of the end.

Saturday 13 June 7.30pm

Beethoven, Kurtág, Ligeti, Bartók, Schubert, Stockhausen, Karg-Elert, Carter, Stroud, Paganini, Bach, Vieuxtemps, Zimmerman: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Haffner Wind Quintet, Quatuor Diotima, Concert Hall, Snape  (J-PJ)

Beethoven: Allegretto from String Quartet in F, Op.59, No.1
Kurtág: Excerpts from Játékok for piano
Ligeti: Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet
Musica Ricercata
Etude for piano No.10
Third and fourth movements from String Quartet No.2
Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes (adaptation for chamber musicians)
Bartók: Allegro from String Quartet No.5
Schubert: Ländler, No.s 21, 12, 6, 7, 8; Waltz No.6
Stockhausen: Tierkreis: Gemini, Aquarius, Aries, Capricorn, Taurus, Virgo
Karg-Elert: Sonate in F sharp minor, Op.140
Carter: Retracing, for solo bassoon
Stroud: Fragmenti
Paganini: Capriccio No.13
Bach: Fuga from Violin Sonata No.2, BWV 1003
Vieuxtemps: Capriccio
Zimmerman: Four Short Studies for solo cello

The final concert on this opening Saturday of the festival at last provided a full session of intelligent musical enquiry and performance. Put together by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and entitled 'Collage-Montage'  the concert explored the possibilities arising from the juxtaposition of unrelated musical works - both within the overall programme, and by playing them alongside and simultaneously on top of each other. The first part of the concert looked at the idea of the repeated note in music, moving from Beethoven’s elegant joking in his String Quartet in F, through Kurtág’s tragic halting chords in Játékok, to Ligeti’s quirky approach in his Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet and Bartók’s emotional turmoil and folk idioms in the fifth string quartet. This was followed by a clever take on the concept of melody, whereby the conventional - and borderline kitsch - ländler and waltz melodies of Schubert were framed by Stockhausen’s stark melodic and rhythmic structures from his zodiac-inspired Tierkreis.

The third part of the concert (subtitled ‘scherzo brilliante’) was even more experimental in approach. Seated separately and at some distance from each other, Aimard (on piano) and members of the Haffner Wind Quintet and the Quatuor Diotima string quartet played excerpts by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, Elliott Carter, Richard Stroud, Nicolò Paganini, JS Bach, Henry Vieuxtemps and Bernd Alois Zimmerman. These pieces for piano, bassoon, horn, violin, viola and cello were gradually superimposed on each other, ending with a competitive crowd of sound that was both chaotic and oddly effective.

The final part of the programme featured a homage to Ligeti, with the two ensembles plus Aimard alternating the composer’s Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet and second string quartet with solo piano music. The Haffner Wind Quintet and Quatuor Diotima demonstrated an incredibly high standard of playing throughout the concert, and impressed the audience with their technical skills and sensitive response to the music. A final coda in which all ten musicians played a ‘human’ adaptation of Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes using wooden claves was an amusing and slightly subversive conclusion to an imaginative and provocative evening.

John-Pierre Joyce 

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