Tuesday 9 January 2024

Aldeburgh Festival at 75: festival regular, Tony Cooper reports

Britten: The Burning Fiery Furnace - Aldeburgh Festival, Orford Church, 1966 (Photo: John Richardson / Britten Pears Arts)
Britten: The Burning Fiery Furnace - Aldeburgh Festival, Orford Church, 1966 (Photo: John Richardson / Britten Pears Arts)

Flashing through life, this year’s Aldeburgh Festival notches up its 75th edition and features a stellar line-up of international performers offering a wealth of music across a wholesome 17 days. Festival regular, Tony Cooper, reports.

Founded by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier in 1948, the Aldeburgh Festival, originally centred on the Borough’s cosy and intimate Jubilee Hall in Crabbe Street with a seating capacity of just 236. However, when Britten and Pears conceived the bright idea of turning the Victorian-built malt-house at Snape, situated about five miles inland from Aldeburgh, into an 832-seat venue, Snape Maltings Concert Hall was born. Officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1967, the Snape Maltings Concert Hall suffered serious fire damage two years later, re-opening in time for the Aldeburgh Festival the following year. 

The larger venue, of course, opened the festival to a much wider audience while it could also attract much larger ensembles and orchestras, too, as opposed to the intimate (but much-loved) Jubilee Hall. Ambitious as ever, though, Britten and Pears never stood still and within five years they reclaimed more buildings on the site and established a centre for talented young musicians.  

The development and expansion of the site seems to be ongoing and in 2006 the festival purchased a 999-year lease on the Maltings’ complex investing around £14 million in new studios and rehearsal spaces which came into being in 2009. Now the Creative Campus at the Maltings has four performance venues and over 20 rehearsal and public spaces. 

The Hoffmann Building, for instance, features two excellent spaces suitable for performances while providing additional rehearsal rooms and a social area. The centrepiece of the building - aptly named The Britten Studio - is cleverly designed offering an excellent and flexible acoustic with a high level of sound insulation for recording. It’s ideal for orchestral rehearsals and can also be used as a 340-seat venue too. 

The smaller-scale building - Jerwood Kiln Studio - seats up to 80 people in a flexible configuration and is a purposeful space for smaller groups to rehearse and suitably equipped for video and electro-acoustic installations. And a nice touch, architecturally speaking, is to the fact that the venue retained its double-height roof and much of the existing fabric of the original kiln structure. 

Opened by HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in 1979, the Holst Library contains many of the original contents donated by Imogen Holst, a bosom friend of Benjamin Britten and an artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1956 to 1977. ‘The Gustav Holst Library will be a working library for the use of students,’ she said. ‘It’s being called after him in gratitude for his music and his teaching.’ 

Open by appointment, the library comprises a large collection of books, scores and audio materials covering many genres. Much of the stock is available, too, for searching on the web catalogue of the Britten-Pears Library.  

Britten, Imogen Holst and Pears, early 1950s (Photo: Britten Pears Arts)
Britten, Imogen Holst and Pears, early 1950s
(Photo: Britten Pears Arts)

Without doubt, Britten was a pioneering figure in the world of classical music and long before arts organisations ever thought of engaging in education and supporting young artists, Britten, along with Pears, found a school honoured by their names in 1972 known today as the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme which allows students to participate in masterclasses under the direction of renowned instructors and to perform on stage in festival concerts with world-class performers and conductors. 

And always striving for the best, Britten and Pears brought to the Suffolk coast a host of international stars including such world-renowned figures as the German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the American violinist/conductor Yehudi Menuhin, who, incidentally, spent most of his performing career in Britain, the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the Russian cellist Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich as well as the likes of Kathleen Ferrier, Dennis Brain, Clifford Curzon and the Amadeus String Quartet. 

A coterie of emerging talent made their way to Suffolk, too, that included Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström, the American pianist Murray Perahia and the English-born virtuoso classical guitarist/lutenist Julian Bream while the inaugural festival of 1948 witnessed a staging of Britten’s opera Albert Herring at the Jubilee Hall and the first performance of his cantata Saint Nicolas at the Parish Church with a trio of lectures delivered by E.M. Forster on George Crabbe, Tyrone Guthrie on theatre and Sir Kenneth Clark on East Anglian painters. 

Following the deaths of Britten and Pears the artistic direction fell to a coterie of musicians who knew both men well including conductors Philip Ledger and Steuart Bedford and composers Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen. 

However, a big event in 2013 (Britten’s centenary year) centred on Peter Grimes which was miraculously and successfully staged on Aldeburgh beach with the festival then under the direction of Jonathan Reekie while his successor, Roger Wright, who has been at the crease enjoying a terrific innings for the past decade, retires after this festival.  

The 2019 festival presented the UK première of the chamber opera The Hunting Gun by Thomas Larcher [see Tony's review], based on a best-selling post-war Japanese novella by Yasushi Inoue surrounding a universal story of deception of others and, indeed, of ourselves. A work of depth and passion, it raised considerable interest all round for this Austrian-born composer therefore I’m glad to see him back this year offering Aldeburgh the UK première of his most recent work Unerzählt (Untold), a 20-minute piece featuring South Tyrol-born baritone, Andrè Schuen, accompanied by Julius Drake. 

Forming the backbone of the festival are four featured artists comprising composer Unsuk Chin, cellist Alban Gerhardt, violinist Daniel Pioro and composer Judith Weir while this year’s festival will also reflect on its rich heritage offering a host of events to recreate significant moments in its illustrious history. 

A strong, rich and varied programme offers an exciting mix of opera, orchestras, choirs, singers, dance and chamber-music ensembles delivering a range of thrilling and exciting concerts ranging from medieval to contemporary music while a visual arts programme offers a nice contrast to the performing side of events.  

For instance, renowned conceptual artist, Cerith Wyn Evans, will light up the Dovecote Studios with a neon installation which takes inspiration from his relationship with Japanese Noh Theatre thereby complementing well a new production of Britten’s Curlew River set to a libretto by William Plomer and first performed 60 years ago (13th June 1964) at the church of St Bartholomew, Orford, by the English Opera Group, directed by Colin Graham. 

This was the first of Britten’s three ‘Parables’ for church performance based on the Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa (Sumida River) by Kanze Jūrō (1395-1431), which Britten saw during a visit to Japan and the Far East in early 1956.  

TThe second of the ‘Parable’ operas The Burning Fiery Furnace came in 1966 followed by The Prodigal Son in 1968 - all with libretti by Plomer. I attended all three première performances at Orford and the experience of seeing them all together at a much-later festival (2013 to be precise) by Mahogany Opera/Aurora Orchestra with Roger Vignoles, music director/accompanist, directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, is still indelibly imprinted on my mind 

Beyond the Noh source dramatic material, Britten incorporated elements of Noh treatment of theatrical time into this composition. In fact, Curlew River marked a departure in style for the remainder of the composer’s creative life paving the way for such works as Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice as well as the Third String Quartet

Another interesting music-art collaboration fuses renowned British artist Rachel Jones and soprano and acclaimed Messiaen interpreter, Gweneth Ann Rand, who’ll perform all three of the composer’s great song-cycles beginning with Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort complemented by Jones’ animated painting projections which will form a dazzling backdrop to the performances. 

However, if the ‘Wooden O’ in Shakespeare’s Henry V couldn’t hold the vast fields of France neither can I hold the vast array of programme matter in this compact feature that makes the Aldeburgh Festival one of great importance to locals and visitors alike! Therefore, do check out their website https://brittenpearsarts.org/ for a detailed blow-by-blow account of what’s on offer (there’s a lot!) and, hopefully, you’ll decamp to the Suffolk coast for a musical feast! And, if it takes your fancy, enjoy a nice fish supper from Aldeburgh’s famed fish-and-chip shop in the High Street. That’s a feast wrapped up all in itself!  

One last thought: the wisdom of books, the wisdom of music, the wisdom of art, are all employed and entwined within the wonderful Snape Maltings complex that Lowestoft-born Britten (who served as President of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club for many years) dearly loved so much. 

Booking: office@brittenpearsarts.org   

01728 687110 



No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month