mon 22/07/2024

theartsdesk at the 2024 Aldeburgh Festival - romantic journeys, cosmic hallucinations and wild stomps | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the 2024 Aldeburgh Festival - romantic journeys, cosmic hallucinations and wild stomps

theartsdesk at the 2024 Aldeburgh Festival - romantic journeys, cosmic hallucinations and wild stomps

Revelation of a master baritone and a new masterpiece at the heart of a packed weekend

Pianist Julius Drake and baritone Andrè Schuen in an epic recital of Schumann and LarcherAll images © Aldeburgh Festival

It may be unusual to begin festival coverage with praise of the overseer rather than the artists. Yet Roger Wright, who quietly leaves his post at Britten Pears Arts this July after a momentous decade, is no ordinary Chief Executive. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him; he has been a beacon during difficult times for the arts in the UK, and especially during lockdown; and he leaves the Aldeburgh Festival in best ever shape, just as he did the BBC Proms before it.

What was for me the deep heart and soul of the first Saturday and Sunday – and, alas, circumstances prevented my attending the beginning of the joint Messiaen project between soprano Gweneth Ann Rand, fascinating artist Rachel Jones and curator Cynthia Igbokwe, about which others raved – was the first performance of a breathtaking, or breath-holding, new song cycle performed by the greatest imaginable Lieder duo.

Andre Schuen at AldeburghWright had encountered young South Tyrolese baritone Andrè Schuen (pictured left) in Austrian genius Thomas Larcher’s opera Der Jagdgewehr (The Hunting Gun), and knew that after the work’s Aldeburgh performance with two members of the original cast (Schuen was not one of them) and the success of featuring Larcher as artist in residence during the 2023 Festival, the time was right to spotlight Schuen and the astounding Julius Drake, not a “singer’s accompanist” but a top pianist by any standards, in another Larcher masterwork, recorded but not until Sunday afternoon performed live.

Unerzählt (Unrecounted) is a collection composed between 2018 and 2021, setting self-styled “micropoems” by WG Sebald, who not only famously meditated upon a journey through Suffolk landscapes in The Rings of Saturn, but also settled as a PhD student and later as Chair of Literature at the University of East Anglia (he died suddenly, if not – to himself, at least – completely unexpectedly, of a heart attack at the age of 57 while driving to his home in Poringland south-east of Norwich). The voice makes every syllable, every vowel sound count in a feat of sustained line, but it’s the pianist who has to jump through hoops to conjure a rainbow of sounds from within and around the instrument. Drake told us how grateful he was to have Larcher not only as page turner but also as fellow technician for the most complicated post-Cageian adjustments – the most daunting of all to conjure a plane taking off in the fifth song, where Sebald baldly states that “On 8 May 1927 the pilots Nungesser & Coli took off from Le Bourget and after that were never seen again” (Drake and Larcher pictured below).

If this suggests rampant avant-gardism, that’s very far from the case. Larcher uses tonality, major and minor triads, with pinpoint precision. Metaphysics are conjured spellbindingly up to that airplane song, when mankind enters the equation, only to prove unequal to forces beyond its control. Rarely have I heard an auditorium more intensely silent. Without that part of what Britten called the magic triangle – composer, performer(s), audience – the effect would not have been as shattering as it turned out.

TJulius Drake and Thomas Larcherhe recital as a result felt epic: an unpredictable heart of cosmic darkness and strange lights flanked by two Schumann trajectories on the personal level of love found and bitterly, desperately lost in the Op. 24 Liederkreis before the Larcher and Dichterliebe after the interval. I wonder if every singer would allow Drake to dare so much in terms of shock and silence. This Heine protagonist suffers very deeply indeed, to the point of mania: have the beating of the heart equated with a hammering coffin-maker ever struck such trenchant blows before, physical reality rather than metaphor, and who has ever experienced “Ich grolle nicht” (“I don’t complain”), so often excerpted as a conventionally passionate number, delivered with such colossal force and focus? Schuen was in the world of each journey right from the start, expressing emotion so perfectly that it didn’t seem like acting, holding and responding to the mood of the piano codas right through to the long, aching benediction that falls at the end of Dichterliebe. With so many interpreters, even the much-vaunted Lieder-lovers’ delight Christian Gerhaher, falling short of the ideal in one realm or another, for me, at any rate, and Schuen in tandem with Drake reaching what felt like sheer perfection, is it fatuous to hail him as the new Fischer-Dieskau, with an approach and a colour-palette all his own?

Schuen and Drake reaffirmed the dimension of direct communication with an audience from which I’d been reeling in Dublin recitals by Abel Selaocoe and the accordion duo of Dermot Dunne and Martin Tourish, and which by comparison I’d missed in the admirable spotlight on all three Brahms violin sonatas as played on the Saturday morning by “festival featured musician” Daniel Pioro and pianist Simon Smith (pictured below). Sure, have the music in front of you for security, but look at your partner once in a while, and at least visibly suggest connection with the audience. Daniel Pioro and Simon Smith at AldeburghNot that the grasp of each sonata wasn’t magisterial, with ideal soaring from the violinist and focused articulation from the pianist often verging on the supernaturally beautiful at times. It’s a matter of taste as to what tone you want from your violinist, and I’d have preferred one at the start of the G major masterpiece more suggestive of radiant at-one-with-the-world-ness – Vadim Repin told me this was his favourite work of all for that very reason – and cool control of vibrato verging on detached objectivity was Pioro’s preferred mode. Still, the intervalless sequence was a feat of stamina and a revelation: especially so, for me, No. 2 in A, with the seeming effortlessness of Brahms’s late, more compressed, style (and such originality in Smith’s handling of the exquisite piano role in the opening Allegro amabile).

Alas, a mobile went off in the hybrid middle movement, probably for a minute in the bag and another minute as the lady tried to work out how to switch it off. The players had to stop; the person in my seat near-shouted “go out” just before she managed to silence the jingle. Curiously, the ethereal episode that followed was perhaps the highlight of the whole concert. The Third Sonata begun in the same year (1886) sees a partial return to the old storminess – you’d think No. 1 was the later work – which allowed Pioro and Smith to end on a tidal wave of committed ferocity. If only we’d been able to see as well as hear that. Alban Gerhardt at the Aldeburgh FestivalThere are never any such drawbacks to the total performance art of Alban Gerhardt, another “festival featured musician”, who showed us his relish at total collaboration with Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra over in the main Maltings hall that evening. His – and their – Elgar Cello Concerto came across with absolute freshness, rollicking forwards, the bitumen removed, if also some of the more inward shadows. I certainly want to hear Gerhardt in all six Bach cello suites, such threaded sense of direction was there in his encore.

It was difficult for me to judge the full impact of the Elgar, though, because another unfortunate lady, this time with a condition so you couldn’t possibly say anything, had a singing and a perpetual conversation with herself going on. When the music got louder, so did the reactions. And a lot of loud music there was, starting with Colin Matthews’ fanfare (a surprise) for Roger Wright, surely not a portrait of the man in its gnarly opening, but an effective homage as perhaps Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which I find harder to sit through over the years though I know it’s a fine professional piece of work, was not.

Gardner’s innovative programming at the helm of the LPO gave us a spectacular second half. He’d selected his own highlights from Britten’s full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, concentrating on the more symphonic side so that some splendid divertissement-music in Act One had to bite the dust, but very much a continuity, the low brass startling us with the hallucinogenic waltz of clouds, stars and moon, the strings biting in the acid brilliance of the cumulative Pas de deux. Britten’s paradoxically stripped-down eclecticism included a strident echo of Bartók’s lurid one-act pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin in the later ballet’s Prelude, so it was appropriate that the feral metropolitan-nightmare suite should follow. Glittering magic marked the clarinet conjurings of the decoy-girl (no orchestral personnel, indeed no biographies, listed in the programme, so I can’t credit), the dance with the oriental terror like Salome on speed, but the most startling was saved for last in the stomp of the thugs’ attack on the supernatural gentleman. I never thought I’d hear strings bite quite so deep or raise so many hairs as Klaus Mäkelä's Oslo Philharmonic did last year, but Gardner got the same – or better, who can tell when so overwhelmed? – from his now-devoted players. The Fairy Queen at AldeburghThe other end of the dynamic scale was the somnambulant keynote on Sunday evening with an all-too-complete performance of Purcell’s music for The Fairy Queen. Thankfully the Midsummer Night’s Dream mash-up it’s wrapped around was only suggested in Isaline Claeys’ clever and often magical spoken text, delivered with ideal variation by Simon Robson. In poetic conjunction with Emilie Lauwers’ slow-moving silhouette concept, realized in the fine video work for which she was joined by Mário Melo Costa, the five main themes, one per act, of forest setting, night creatures, copulation, the seasons and plants with aphrodisiac properties were mesmerisingly well sustained.

That was no mean feat given the unheavenly length of Purcell’s music. In 1967 Peter Pears, Imogen Holst and Britten prepared a shortened version for concert performance at that year’s festival; it was recorded and fits on four LP sides. These days authenticity often insists on The Complete; I remember being so disheartened by a dreary academic talk before a London Classical Players performance that I didn’t stay (my loss, no doubt – of course I wasn’t reviewing). That said, the achievement of Vox Luminis on Sunday was undeniable, with the instrumental ensemble sounding very rich indeed in that acoustic and Lionel Meunier’s splendid singers glorious in ensemble (mostly, as is their wont, from memory, though scores appeared once or twice, not sure why). Scene from The Fairy QueenThe 16 voices are a mix of born soloists and choristers less solid on their own, so the many songs, duets and trios were of variable quality. Predictably outstanding were baritone Marcus Farnsworth – though many around me were slumped by the time he got to sing the hauntingly upholstered Sleep solo at the end of the unavoidably soporific Act 2 – and tenor Hugo Hymas, while the most ravishing and sustained soprano sounds came from Carine Tinney (pictured above with Farnsworth). Lóránt Najbauer carried out the sometimes embarrassing scene of the Drunken Poet with natural conviction, and despite an excess of swaying, the relaxed demeanour of the vocalists added to the likeability of it all. Would I have gone back after the interval had I a choice? A moot point, but I would have missed some real splendours, and the end result was one of joyous acclaim for these fine performers’ dedication.


I could not agree more with the reviews of the Schuen/Drake and LPO concerts. (I did not attend the others). The Larcher song cycle was extraordinary, and Gardner's accounts of the Britten and Bartók, in particular, exhilarating.


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