Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Aldeburgh Festival 2008 @ Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh

27 June 2008

The world’s leading new music chamber ensemble gave an impeccable performance of works by three leading 20th Century composers.

John Cage and Stravinsky sat alongside Harrison Birtwistle, whose thrilling new string quartet Tree of Strings proved a riveting highlight of the evening.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was remembered with a late night outing for his 1968 vocal piece Stimmung, virtuosically discharged by London Voices.

John Cage’s String Quartet in 4 Parts of 1949-50 has four movements named after the seasons. Vivaldi it certainly is not but, along with all the mathematical calculations going on, it’s possible to detect some sort of narrative scheme in the writing lazy somnolence for Summer, sadness of best days gone in Autumn, stark wintriness (which goes on for far too long) and skipping merrymaking for Spring.

During a personal appearance at Aldeburgh Cinema earlier in the day, Sir Harrison Birtwistle was characteristically unforthcoming about his work but, with ostensible connection to his 10 year sojourn on the island of Raasay in the 70s, he described his new piece as “glancing towards” the subject matter (while eschewing any idea of “influence” or “inspiration”). Cage could be said to be “glancing towards” a seasonal narrative in String Quartet in 4 Parts as well as towards the silence he would explore fully in 4′ 33″ a few years later.

It would be quite possible to impose something of a programmatic interpretation on Tree of Strings, Birtwistle’s new string quartet, here receiving its UK premiere. From a mass of wavering lines, the cello starts to assert its authority with a galvanising effect on the ensemble. With loud plucked notes, the cello keeps the higher strings on course, although there’s the constant threat of disruption. Confidence grows amongst the group but there are small outbursts of rebellion, the nagging insistence of the cello eventually achieving some sort of harmony.

A second section seems to suggest industrious labour, all working together in a common cause but in the final section the players leave one by one, firstly to a second position on the platform and then from the performance area altogether. The dominant cello is the last to depart. The title is taken from a poem by the Raasay-born Sorley MacLean and, while the work is hardly illustrative, landscape looms mistily in the swirl of sound.

The programme was made up with Sir Harrison’s glacial articulations of three movements from Bach’s The Art of Fugue and Stravinsky’s scratchy Three Pieces for String Quartet. Sounding in the first two movements like a group of cockerels preening and dancing on a Saturday night (although actually inspired by clowns and circuses), this 1914 work’s lapsing into a sombre final act makes for a very strange structure.

If Birtwistle is evoking some sense of communal existence in Tree of Strings, then Stockhausen’s Stimmung, given an advised late night performance at the Maltings, whirled us back to a world of loose-fitting white clothing and beanbag furniture. London Voices, under its director Ben Parry, all but pumped marijuana smoke into the auditorium in their capture of a lost era, as they droned and intoned for an hour or so.

From the repetitious incantations, words appear days of the week, names of world deities and some spicy sexual imagery. A period piece undoubtedly, its revival in the year following the composer’s death (it’ll be heard again at the Proms in August) is not an unwelcome one.

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