Aldeburgh Pickings

By Holloway, Robin | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Aldeburgh Pickings


Holloway, Robin, The Spectator


First inspection of this year's Aldeburgh Festival brochure seemed to threaten outright banality: the Borodin quartet commencing a two-year plan interembracing the complete oeuvre for the medium by Beethoven and Shostakovich; a Faure subtheme apparently focusing upon the overfamiliar Requiem; and the quaint conceit of a `Suffolk premiere' of Peter Grimes, the operatic testimony that has taken the name of its composer, and the small Suffolk town beginning with A where its action is set, to the ends of the earth. Beethoven is Beethoven, and his quartets remain a spiritual journey second to none in the entire terrain of Western art but, just because of this, they can be heard very easily everywhere you go. Personally, I'd travel a long way in the opposite direction to avoid exposure to Shostakovich - the English taste for this threadbare music, as if in communal expiation for guilt and suffering we should have undergone but were sadly spared, strikes me as mere revival of the old national vice, pleasure masquerading as pain. And Faure's lovely work has become, in the vast ubiquity of its Anglican adoption, about as exciting as a coffee morning among the home-knitted hassocks.

But even in a three-day plunge it was easily possible, evading packed-out houses for prepacked culture, to pick up the strangeness and intensity that have always been this festival's hallmark. The only Faure I caught live made worthwhile the awkward journey which still, nearly a quarter-century after his death, keeps Britten's little town well defended against the casual visitor. The Florestan Trio played one of the old master's penultimate works with calm-contained energy in the outer movements, and achieved in the long central andante an extraordinary sense of arching continuity, the unfolding unisons of the two string players held buoyant in the air by the piano's gentle control. As remarkable was the other supreme work of Faure's old age, the second piano quintet, broadcast from the Festival's first weekend in a performance wherein its artistic director Thomas Ades joined the Belcea quartet to realise to the full the huge span, from pounding energy, via cascading brilliance and deep serenity, to dissolving regions of animated radiance.

Ades took the rostrum as composer/conductor three nights later, introducing the European premiere of America (A Prophecy), setting a Mayan text (in English) foretelling their nation's cataclysmic doom with ferocious keening declamatory power for soprano, alongside chunky texts in Spanish and Latin for the Conquistadores. Perhaps the Faure Requiem was needed after all, after this disquieting piece: the fiery sweep of its opening stretch and the ashy chill of its close make it this composer's most distinctive achievement to date. Four days later he conducted one of America's prototypes, Varese's ever-astonishing Equatorial, its archaic Mayan chanted (in Spanish) by male voices against angry percussion, piano, organ, with shrieks, roars, explosions from wind and brass to make Birtwistle's Panic (another clear descendant) seem positively well behaved; and the whole crowned with the excruciating saccharine enemas of a pair of squealing ondes martinots (the electronic instrument subsequently popularised in Messiaen's Turangalila). …

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