Tuesday 12 June 2018

Britten and Bernstein side by side (without Sondheim) in Suffolk

Aaron Copland & Leonard Bernstine
Aaron Copland & Leonard Bernstine
Bernstein & Britten: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson; Aldeburgh Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 8 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Britten, Bernstein and America surveyed in three concerts from John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

The ongoing theme in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival (the 71st edition) focuses on Britten and America reflecting the year of 1948 when the festival laid down its roots not only enriching the cultural life of Suffolk and its environs but the country as a whole. Three concerts from John Wilson, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the John Wilson Orchestra in Snape Maltings Concert Hall gave us a wide variety of music by both composers, including Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Seven sonnets of Michaelangelo (with Robert Murray) and Diversions for piano Left Hand and Orchestra (with Pavel Kolesnikov), and Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 - 'The Age of Anxiety' (with Cédric Tiberghien) and music from his musicals.

Britten in the mid-1960s, by Hans Wild
Britten in the mid-1960s, by Hans Wild
Without a shadow of doubt, Britten and Bernstein (the centenary of whose birth falls this year) were both towering figures in the world of music working not just as composers, pianists and conductors but also as educators at a time when education was in its infancy in the creative world.

Both men were celebrated and revered like no other and here their music can be heard side by side. Many connections resonate across this festival including the likes of Peter Grimes, W H Auden, the Revd Walter Hussey and their bosom friend, Aaron Copland, whom, incidentally, Britten met for the first time at the 1938 ISCM Festival in London where Copland's El Salón México and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were played at the same concert.

And in the opening concert at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Copland was on the bill with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Wilson on top form delivering a sensitive, atmospheric and compelling reading of Quiet City, a work heavily featuring soloists from the orchestra, Mark O’Keeffe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais). A mellow and inviting work offering an ode to New York, Quiet City was composed for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name which, unfortunately, never made it above preview performances.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ - the title emanating from W H Auden’s poem of the same name - regally followed. Completed in March 1949 in New York City, the work was dedicated to and commissioned by the Russian-born conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who was preparing to end his 25-year career conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949.

When beginning to write the piece, Bernstein stated that Auden’s poem was ‘one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry’ and that a ‘composition of a symphony based on ‘‘The Age of Anxiety’’ acquires an almost compulsive quality.’ Having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, Bernstein lauded the piece, saying: ‘When I first read the book I was breathless.’

Breathless, maybe, but Bernstein was also an innovative and forward-thinking person tremendously eager to get on with things. He scored his second symphony for solo piano and orchestra thereby dumping the traditional symphonic form and dividing the piece into six subsections (mirroring Auden’s text) split equally into two parts and performed without interruption.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did the work proud delivering an exhilarating and thrilling performance which Bernstein, surely, would have loved. It certainly left a packed house (apart from one empty seat next to mine: perhaps occupied by The Invisible Man?) in raptures and seemingly breathless, too, while the French-born pianist, Cédric Tiberghien, also delivered a thrilling account of the score heightening the excitement of the audience particularly in the showy and jazz-influenced movement ‘The Masque’ that touched upon boogie-woogie, the musical craze sweeping America in the 1920s.

The first half of the concert, however, was more reserved focusing on Britten featuring the Sinfonia da Requiem (dedicated to the composer’s parents) and the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Britten, in fact, wrote the Sinfonia (his largest purely orchestral work) in 1940 at the age of 26 and at its world première at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli in March 1941 it was well received. In this fine and detailed performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Wilson it found great favour, too.

Following the work’s première a further performance was arranged in Boston under Serge Koussevitzky which ultimately led to the commission of Peter Grimes from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, a work that epitomises Britten’s writing and underlies the overall spirit and atmosphere of Aldeburgh.

The opening bars of the Sinfonia, comprising strong percussive sounds coupled with the solemnity of the woodwind, summed up for me and brought to the fore Britten’s sensitivity to conflict and, indeed, reflected his pacifist viewpoint while the tightly-played higher-register strings and screaming brass that followed chilled the bone reminding one of the horrors and devastation of war. In stark contrast, the last movement (Requiem aeternam) offered a more rounded and serene sound particularly in the middle section in which the strings wallowed in a relaxed and flowing melody. When the work came to its quiet and unassuming end, punctuated by one long-lasting note held by the clarinet, it reflected and hinted, perhaps, of a bright new future.

Robert Murray, John Wilson & BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Snape Maltings
Robert Murray, John Wilson & BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Snape Maltings
The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo - a song-cycle composed by Britten in 1940 for Peter Pears and a work that the singer singled out as one of the greatest works the composer had given him - was heard on this occasion in a new orchestral version (an Aldeburgh commission) by Colin Matthews, who, by the way, acted as an assistant to Britten for many years and worked closely, too, with Imogen Holst.

Robert Murray was the chosen soloist and his strong and eloquent tenor voice radiated round the vastness of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall with consummate ease that more than endeared the audience to the singer’s musical prowess and, indeed, to the rather lovely setting of the sonnets themselves which speak so tenderly of love. Penned by one of the greatest poets and artists of the High Renaissance, Michelangelo - who exerted such an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art - was humbly born in 1475 in the Republic of Florence now present-day Tuscany.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra made a weekend of it and I hope that some of its members enjoyed an ‘out-of-the-paper’ fish-and-chip supper from Aldeburgh’s well-appointed fish shop. However, their second concert at Snape offered a rich and varied programme opening with a strong and pleasing interpretation of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes while Russian-born pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, proved an exceptional soloist in Britten’s Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra composed in 1940 and a work seldom heard.

The programme was completed by a 16-minute piece by Bernstein entitled Ḥalil, a work for flute and chamber orchestra composed in 1981 in memory of the young Israeli flautist, Yadin Tanenbaum, who was killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur war at the Suez Canal. Premièred at the Sultan’s Pool, Jerusalem, in May 1981 the soloist was Jean-Pierre Rampal with Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic. In this performance, though, American-born, Claire Chase - who made her début with the San Diego Symphony at the age 14 in 1992 - was the soloist. Her breath control and technique was simply immaculate and it would be hard to come across a better performance of a work which, I guess, is largely unknown and, indeed, not that frequently played.

The concert also included Copland’s lively and boisterous Billy the Kid suite conducted with flair and preciseness by John Wilson whose personality and confidence not only reached out to his players but also to members of the audience as well. Maestro Wilson seems more than happy on the rostrum in charge of a major symphony orchestra as he is with his own show-stopping show-biz orchestra, The John Wilson Orchestra, who also occupied the Maltings over the weekend delivering an all-Bernstein programme comprising a selection of numbers from some of the composer’s well-known shows such as West Side Story and On the Town to those lesser-known ‘beauties’ as Trouble in Tahiti and The Skin of Our Teeth.

If you want a big musical treat on the beautiful and serene Suffolk coast pack your bags and head for Aldeburgh as the festival runs to Sunday 24th June. Box office: 01728 687110

Check out the full programme by visiting www.snapemaltings.co.uk
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Programme One - Britten: Sinfonia de Requiem; Britten orch. Colin Matthews: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (soloist: Robert Murray); Copland: Quiet City; Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (soloist: Cédric Tiberghien). BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. John Wilson, Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Programme Two - Britten: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes; Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra (soloist: Pavel Kolesnikov); Bernstein: ‘Halil’; Copland: Billy the Kid. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. John Wilson, Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Bernstein: Excerpts from West Side Story, Wonderful Town, On the Town, Candide, Peter Pan, Trouble in Tahiti, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Louise Alder (soprano), Kim Criswell (mezzo-soprano), Damian Humbley (tenor), Nadim Naaman (baritone), John Wilson Orchestra, cond. John Wilson, Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

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