Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Aldeburgh Festival 2008 @ Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh

19 June 2008

We spend a day in Suffolk reviewing contrasting concerts in Orford Church and Snape Maltings.

The Aldeburgh Festival seems to exist for music lovers for whom “avant-garde” and “conservative” are terms that can equally encompass great music.

The wide ranging programme is from the artistic director Thomas Ads, who can be thanked for presenting rare and unusual work by all sorts of interesting composers.

In a simple church in Orford, Carolyn Sampson performed a curious and clever programme of songs in two distinct halves – one French (Debussy, Bizet, Poulenc) and other English (Barber, Britten, Walton), except that the songs by Britten were actually written in French. Debussy casts his magic from the first chords, but Sampson didn’t really find her feet until the second or third song. She is a radiant performer, with the ability to stun an audience with a beautifully controlled phrase and a delicately held note. She’s perfectly conscious of the texts she’s singing, placing natural details among the words, such as singing the word “fatigue” with a subtle sigh in her voice – most singers would either overdo it, or not do it at all. In the last song “Spleen”, Debussy keeps the melody frozen on one note, the emotional terrain of the words being too extreme for frivolous melody, but then fires off a wrenching climax that was sung so genuinely.

In other parts of the programme, Sampson got a chance to get into character, particularly in the brilliant “Ladybird” by Bizet where she (and bear in mind that she’s six months pregnant!) was very convincing as an adolescent boy trying his luck with an unsuspecting young girl. She kept the acting down to a minimum just using facial expressions and little hand gestures, but it was captivating, funny and apt. Strangely, the songs by Britten (written when he was only 14 years old) made no impression on me. They sounded professional and competent, but not especially original. There were some gems in the English half of the programme, like the modulating and melodic songs of Samuel Barber and the rollicking farces of William Walton. In contrast to Debussy, Walton often puts musical emphasis on unimportant words in the poems he’s setting, but the songs are still brilliant. The accompanying pianist was Jonathan Papp, whose playing was supportive and suggestive, and presented Sampson in her best possible light.

The Kurtg concert was very unusual, and also in two very separate halves. In the first, the HiPartita for solo violin was pretty unconvincing. The violinist Hiromi Kikichi had the whole score spread out on about ten music stands and was sidestepping as she played from left to right and then came back to the middle. The sounds themselves meandered atmospherically in fragments of near-melody, a bit like the ramblings of a bored ghost. The piece was in limbo, not quite repetitive enough to put you in a trance, nor inventive enough to dazzle you. Any solo violin piece is automatically up against Bach, Ysae and Bartk, and this sounded amateurish long before those giants sprang to mind.

The second half was not only different from the first; it was different from anything I’ve ever seen before. The elderly Gyrgy Kurtg and his wife Mrta walked slowly onto the stage and sat at an upright piano to play selections from Jtkok (Games). Because they sat with their backs to the audience it felt exactly as though we were watching them without their consent and the performance was duly selfless and personal. As they played the duets, their bodies swayed together in automatic synchronisation, like two trees blown to and fro, but without hearing the wind to make sense of it. The soft-pedal kept the piano so muffled throughout, it sounded as though I was listening to the radio with my head under the bath water. Quite a good effect, I thought.

Kurtg’s piano compositions come across like improvisations; one minute he’s wallowing in gorgeous chords over and over again, the next tinkling softly high and low. There’s no real interior logic, but unlike the violin piece there are plenty of delicious ideas. He’s conscious of his music’s naivety and makes this humble admission by including several transcriptions of Bach among his own work. The contrast only pays off because Kurtg’s music is completely sincere.

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