Monday 13 February 2023

This year’s Aldeburgh Festival, the 74th edition, features a stellar line-up of international performers offering a wealth of music across a wholesome 17 days. Tony Cooper reports

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Snape Maltings
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Snape Maltings

The Aldeburgh Festival (Friday 9 to Sunday 25 June) opens with a Britten Pears Arts commission and the world première of Sarah Angliss’ opera Giant based on the true and gruesome tale of surgeon John Hunter and his obsession with the 18th-century ‘Irish giant’, Charles Byrne, a man he truly betrayed in one of the most disturbing, chilling and horrifying acts during the era of the grave robbers.  

Written for five voices, Giant uses 18th-century instruments, live electronic chemistry and bespoke music machines as it vividly recalls the events surrounding Byrne’s death whose corpse was, in fact, stolen to order and put on public display. An extraordinary story which resonates through the ages. 

And in celebration of the centenary of Hungarian composer, György Sándor Ligeti, his music is at the forefront of this year’s festival. And adding their musical prowess to the festivities are The King’s Singers who’ll perform the composer’s Six Nonsense Madrigals at St Peter’s-by-the-Waterfront, Ipswich (Thursday, 15 June, 2pm) while Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a former artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival) returns to Snape Maltings (Monday, 19 June, 7.30pm) to perform Ligeti’s Etudes, one of the richest and most original collections of solo piano music of the late 20th century of which Aimard is one of the world’s leading interpreters.

A widely acclaimed key figure in the music of our time, Aimard has enjoyed close collaborations with many leading composers including Ligeti, of course, whose complete works for piano he has recorded. But he’ll be seen in a different light when he teams up with German jazz pianist, Michael Wollny, for some late-night entertainment performing jazz-inflected improvisations based on Etudes

György Ligeti (From Wikipedia
György Ligeti (From Wikipedia)
More Ligeti comes from the Knussen Chamber Orchestra who’ll perform the UK première of Little Serenade conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth while the Ligeti String Quartet punctuates the composer’s centenary with a trio of concerts at Snape Maltings across one day: Friday, 23 June (3pm, 5pm and 8pm). 

Therefore, the first concert comprises sonatas for solo cello and viola followed by the first and second quartets while the ‘third’ chalks up the world première of Nouvelle Etudes comprising 14 tributes to Ligeti by such pioneering composers as Xiaoyong Chen, Emily Hazrati and Rolf Hind while The Ligeti Day closes with a chance to see Stanley Kubrick’s cult film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, whom Ligeti helped to score (Britten Studio, 9.30pm). 

In fact, the string quartet takes centre stage at this year’s festival with eight quartets - namely, Kreutzer, Danish, Bozzini, Ligeti, Brodsky, Carducci, Heath and Van Kuijk - performing throughout the festival in varying formats and locations while visiting orchestras include John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London, the BBC Philharmonic with their new chief conductor John Storgårds, the BBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Icelandic conductor Eva Ollikainen, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with their new chief conductor Kazuki Yamada and the Britten Sinfonia under the baton of Jonathan Bloxham. 

Continuing its commitment to new music, Britten Pears Arts will roll out 35 world premières this year of which 21 are Britten Pears Arts commissions and nine UK premières. Interestingly, too, an Aldeburgh Festival Extra takes place at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House with the UK première of Bushra El-Turk’s multi-media opera, Woman at Point Zero (28-30 June) co-produced by Britten Pears Arts. 

The work is inspired by the seminal 1975 novel by Egyptian writer and feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, telling a story unfolding over one day of two women - Fatma, an activist imprisoned for manslaughter and Sama, an ambitious documentary filmmaker. They share their memories, experiences and secrets while moving gradually from distrust to curiosity with their relationship blossoming through trust, solidarity and friendship. Conducted by Kanako Abe, the music blends Western and Eastern traditions performed on a unique mix of ancient folk instruments by musicians gleaned from all over the world. 

Roger Wright, Chief Executive, Britten Pears Arts, had this to say: ‘The celebration of music and place has always been at the heart of the Aldeburgh Festival therefore one can look forward to hearing music, familiar and new, in the unique surroundings and landscapes of Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh and other Suffolk settings. From the beginning, when the vision of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears created the festival with their friends back in 1948, composers and performers have always shaped the programme.  

‘Therefore, we are delighted to welcome composers Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Cassandra Miller; pianist Pavel Kolesnikov and baritone/composer Roderick Williams as featured artists. They have helped to curate the festival and their work runs like a shining thread throughout the whole programme. There’s a wealth of music, talks, films and visual art on offer across a wholesome 17 days of artistic creativity.’ 

One of the UK premières that should feed the senses is The Art of Being Human (Britten Studio, Sunday, 18 June, 1.30pm and 8pm), created by Laurence Dreyfus and his ensemble Phantasm, choreographer Sommer Ulrickson, and visual artist Alexander Polzin featuring music of the 16th and 17th centuries by the likes of William Byrd, John Dowland, William Lawes and Henry Purcell. Combining music, dance and visual art, this trio of aesthetic forms come together to explore a confrontation between each other. 

A free thinker, programmer and curious mind, Pavel Kolesnikov has made quite a name for himself as one of the most acclaimed pianists of his time. He’ll give seven concerts across his residency including a number with his pianist-partner, Samson Tsoy. One interesting and challenging concert, entitled ‘Celestial Navigation’, promises great things and is Kolesnikov’s elegy to the pioneering American visual artist, Joseph Cornell, who was greatly influenced by the Surrealist movement but also an experimental avant-garde filmmaker, too, and one of the most celebrated exponents of assemblage. 

In his artwork Celestial Navigation, Cornell invokes the myths, images and theories once used to explain the predictable yet baffling patterns of the night sky. And when Kolesnikov first discovered this work, he was totally absorbed by it and, therefore, his recital at Snape Maltings, 10 June, 7.30pm, comprises a constellation of pieces to complement Cornell’s masterpiece by Messiaen, Chopin and Couperin while the programme also includes Thomas Adès’ Darknesse Visible and Schubert’s Four Impromptus, illuminated by interplanetary projections and highlighted by atmospheric and moody lighting. 

In stark contrast to the Celestial Navigation programme, Kolesnikov and Tsoy will perform in the soft twilight of Blythburgh Church (22 June, 8.30pm) an atmospheric programme inspired by the unique location and its cherished sunsets comprising music by Rachmaninoff and Schubert while offering the audience the world première of Trompe-l’œil by Russian composer, Leonid Demyanenko, thereby gently transporting the audience from evening to night.  

Incidentally, this well-respected Russian composer first made a big impression with a host of film scores then achieved greater fame when his controversial opera, The Children of Rosenthal, was premièred at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in March 2002. Set in the USSR during the post-World War II era, the opera tells the story of clones of great composers such as Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Verdi and Mozart.  

A busy person, indeed, Kolesnikov also joins the Britten Sinfonia on the final day of the festival (Snape Maltings, 25 June, 3pm) to perform three contrasting concertos: Britten’s Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, Mozart’s Jeunehomme and Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, an homage to Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Marsyas created for the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern.  

Another busy person is the internationally acclaimed baritone, Roderick Williams, equally at home on the opera or concert stage and an accomplished composer and arranger, too. His Aldeburgh residency will showcase every aspect of his artistry ranging from masterclasses and chamber music to orchestral collaborations as well as his own compositions. 

He'll join forces with pianist Allyson Devenish, soprano Nardus Williams and multi-award-winning poet/playwright Rommi Smith, a winner of numerous prestigious residencies and commissions from institutions ranging from the British Council to the BBC to perform a song-cycle dubbed A Line in the Sand

And mention ‘protest song’ to most people and they might well reach for their vinyl LPs of Bob Dylan or Nina Simone or, perhaps, close their eyes, link arms and chant ‘We shall overcome’, a gospel song which later became a protest song popularised by Pete Seeger and a key anthem of the American civil rights movement. But to protest in song was not invented in the late Sixties. Humans throughout history have used their singing voices to draw ‘lines in the sand’ when other forms of objection have proved complicated.  

Therefore, classical ‘art-song’ abounds with examples albeit in some unexpected places and, therefore, through the fusion of words and music, A Line in the Sand will feature pieces by Schubert, Richard Strauss, Britten, Nadia Boulanger, Kit & the Widow and Errollyn Wallen contextualised by readings from Rommi Smith (Snape Maltings, 13 June, 7.30pm).  

Roderick Williams will also join the Sinfonia of London to give the world première of the orchestration of Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez (a Britten Pears Arts commission) based on settings of a 14th-century Persian Sufi poet (Snape Maltings, 17 June, 7.30pm). He’ll also perform the world première of Ryan Wigglesworth’s newly expanded Vignettes de Jules Renard with the Knussen Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. The cycle builds on the Renard texts that Ravel set and takes a pictorial approach which Wigglesworth also uses in his opera The Winter’s Tale (Snape Maltings, 21 June, 7.30pm).  

The wisdom of literature, the wisdom of music and the wisdom of art are all employed and entwined within the wonderful Snape Maltings complex that Lowestoft-born Britten - who, incidentally, forged his early musical talents in Norfolk and was President of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club for many years - dearly loved so much.  

You want more! 

There’s always more at the Aldeburgh Festival therefore, check out their website at and decamp to the Suffolk coast for a musical feast! And, if you fancy, enjoy a nice fish-and-chip supper out of the paper from the famed Aldeburgh fish-and-chip shop. A feast in itself! 

Booking:  01728 687110 

Tony Cooper

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