The programmes at the Aldeburgh Festival this year (June 10 – 26) were noticeably better and more interesting than the previous two. However the planners do not include many of the works of Benjamin Britten. Surely Britten is the raison d'être of the festival – or should be. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, excellent pianist though he is, does not promote Britten's music as he surely should. His three years as director are up this June but t'is said that he may stay on further. Why?
True, we had The Rape of Lucretia (concert performance only) this year, the string quartets and the cello suites plus the Donne Sonnets but is that enough? Many of us think not. And what of 2013, the centenary of Britten's birth?
Aimard's chief performance this year were as pianist in three evenings of Schubert songs with Matthias Goerne at the voice: Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and the Schwanegesang topped up by the first song cycle ever, An die ferne Geliebte by Beethoven. Aimard was impeccable but Goerne was not; every forte came near to a bellow; he knows the music, can sing tenderly and quietly but stampedes into the ring too often. Pity, although it was good to hear the music.
One boon these days is that good string quartets are thicker on the ground than they used to be fifty years ago in spite of the medium being so labour intensive and its performers usually underpaid. At Aldeburgh we had three good ones: the Arcanto, Barbirolli and Elias, repertoire ranged from late Haydn to Berg's Lyric Suite and several new works, programmed in the Festival's (successful) effort to get press coverage.
Also new was a commissioned piece from the centenarian Elliott Carter: Conservations, a seven minute orchestral piece with prominent parts for piano (Aimard lui-même) and Colin Currie (rushing madly from xylophone to two marimbas). In the same programme Oliver Knussen – ever reliable and passionately comitted, directed a programme with Birmingham forces (Orchestra and Contemporary Music Group) which began, middled and ended with Stravinsky: Scherzo a la Russe, the Huxley Variations and Petrushka. The Huxley piece and Carter's new piece were, encored, by Knussen rather than the audience, and came into the category of old men's brain games. Also new were Helen Grime's Everyone Sang (brush up your Sassoon) and Charlotte Bray's Violin Concerto Caught in Treetops (brush up your D.G. Rossetti), both composed in contemporary lingua france style (i.e. more intellectual than emotionally significant).
There were interesting side-show: a feature on and in Sizewell, a Caledonia evening – all modes and minor key tunes, very entertaining –and films about or with Mahler, Rostropovich, Steinway pianos and a talk about the brain and music. And there was one superb piano recital: Elizabeth Leonskaya, Russian born, emigrated to Vienna, played the Wanderer Fantasy, two A major sonatas and an Allegretto. In the minor key by Schubert for encore she played the G flat Impromptu; Opus 90. Is there a more ravishingly beautiful piano piece in the world? No wonder Neville Cardus wanted to hear it as he lay dying.