Ever since Pierre-Laurent Aimard took on the role of artistic director at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2009, he has been plagued by a polite but persistent band of doubters. No one has questioned the pianist’s musicality, nor his commitment to the job, but rather his affinity with the music of Benjamin Britten – the festival’s founder and guiding light – with the implication that this Frenchman is, well, not quite English enough.
“If you look at what I’ve done and who I am, you will very easily understand that I come from another planet,” Aimard admits, when we meet for coffee on the cusp of his sixth festival. “The fact that I was asked to do this job, I find interesting. That they asked someone who is not a priest in the Britten religion – if I can say so, on the contrary.”
Aimard’s connection to Aldeburgh’s geography – its mudflats and marshes, reed beds and shingle, its palette of browns and greys and peculiarly English sense of melancholy – is beside the point. His perceived heathenism comes in the form of a close association with the postwar European avant-garde, a group of composers whose influence Britten resisted. He met Olivier Messiaen as a boy, and later studied with Yvonne Loriod, the composer’s second wife, at the Paris Conservatoire, before forging important collaborative relationships with other modernists: Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Elliott Carter.
If Aimard found the naysayers off-putting at first, he now seems confident in his role and the changes he has made: “One of my goals as the imported French guy was to try to enrich the festival with new music from the continent, and different categories of artists that were not present, in my mind, in terms of composers, singers, string quartets etc”
Last year’s programme was dominated by the centenary of Britten’s birth; this year the programme marks another centenary – the start of the first world war – with Britten’s pacifist opera Owen Wingrave and a concert of musical responses to conflict that will include Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir and Messiaen’s Visions de L’Amen. Among other themes is a focus on French composer Tristan Murail, who is known as the leading exponent of spectral music, a compositional approach developed in the 1970s that makes use of the sound spectrum rather than the conventional building blocks of western music.
Ligeti provides another important thread of influence. Aimard will lead a series of masterclasses for members of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme focused on Ligeti’s cycle of 18 Études, a body of work composed between 1985 and 2001 that is considered to be of major significance in the modern repertoire. The pianist has been associated with these pieces since their creation, and some of the filmed masterclasses will form part of an online resource, titled the Ligeti Project, which will help to convey Aimard’s unique understanding of these works.
“What can you do to communicate this interpretation? Concerts, that means write programming strategies, make recordings, and also for television or radio … teaching,” he says. “In the past you would write a book, which would be edited and translated after your death and known half a century later, maybe. Nowadays you have the net.”
In order to devote due time and attention to his Ligeti Project, Aimard took a sabbatical away from a demanding recital schedule. His reputation as one of the finest interpreters of late-20th century piano works precedes him, but he has also created notable recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos and Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and this summer will be touring Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book One.
Aimard’s own performance style – intense and unshowy, but unfailingly generous – fits well at Aldeburgh, where concerts are designed to be more than simply platforms for delivery. Flipping through the beautifully produced programme brochure, you are struck not by the usual PR shots of artists and performers but by colours, themes and ideas. Over the years the festival has cultivated relationships with particular artists and ensembles, including Ian Bostridge and the Arditti Quartet, but it is no place for inflated egos.
“We are looking for remarkable musicians who understand the necessity to work on their programmes,” Aimard says. “We try to create special moments, not only for the audience but also for the musicians on stage, because I think then the event has another shine, another intensity.”
Undoubtedly, the festival’s setting adds much to its charm. At Snape Maltings, the main performance site, audiences flood out of the concert hall during intervals to wander through the reed beds; the quaint Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, one of the festival’s original venues, seems haunted by the ghosts of Britten and his coterie; and at Blythburgh church, in the marshes north of the town, recitals are accompanied by the chatter of skylarks.
One of the great successes of last year was Grimes on the Beach, an open-air production of Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes, on the Aldeburgh seafront. Thomas Adès, Aimard’s predecessor at Aldeburgh, is not wholly enamoured of Britten’s operas (though this was not held against him during his time at the festival), least of all Grimes, which he has described as “embarrassing” – and especially so when performed near the town in which it was set.
For Aimard, however, the project helped to enhance a sense of the Aldeburgh community, attracting new audiences from near and far (armed with Thermos flasks and arctic clothing, “the British stoicism was remarkable!”) and inspired new ways of thinking. “Grimes on the Beach has encouraged us to take more risks, to play with the location, with a town, with the citizens there, with the community in the larger sense of the term – how to integrate everybody.”
This year, Aimard has programmed An Aldeburgh Musicircus, inspired by John Cage’s experimental “happenings” in the late 1960s and 1970s. Every musician in Suffolk has been invited to perform (more than 50 acts and nearly 400 performers, from brass bands to belly dancers, are confirmed) and audiences will be encouraged to “curate” their own routes through the town’s organised musical chaos before gathering on the seafront for a performance of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) at the event’s finale.
So far, Aldeburgh has steered a careful path: its programme is cerebral, yes, challenging at times, but never pompous or predictable. Jonathan Reekie, the festival’s former chief executive who left in March this year after 16 years in the role, did much to enrich its offering. As well as greatly expanding the organisation’s year-round programme, he encouraged sidelines in electronic music and visual art and developed further buildings on the Snape Maltings site, while demonstrating an unflinching loyalty to its core identity.
Reekie’s replacement, Roger Wright, who joins the festival from his role as controller of BBC Radio 3 and head of the BBC Proms, has in some people’s opinion resorted recently to a populist approach, leading some to speculate: will we see Doctor Who-themed events at Aldeburgh in the coming years?
Aimard highlights Wright’s experience and reputation “as one of the most admired professionals in the music business,” before brushing the concern aside with an anecdote. He recalls meeting Wright, then a producer at Deutsche Grammophon, when working on a recording of music by Boulez. “He fought to make a composer who was not easily accepted at the time, acceptable, in one of the most institutionalised places on the planet,” he says. “At that moment, it was remarkable.”
The 67th Aldeburgh Festival runs June 13-29; aldeburgh.co.uk
Reader offer: Aldeburgh festival tickets
FT Weekend is delighted to offer its readers an exclusive opportunity to claim two-for-one tickets for Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave and other events at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, the UK’s finest music festival.
From Andrew Clark’s recent article on Owen Wingrave:
Has it ever been easier to be a pacifist? Neocon visionaries aside, there is scant appetite for war in western democracies.
The climate was different in 1942, when Benjamin Britten, aged 29, returned to Britain from the US and registered as a conscientious objector. The country was at war, and able-bodied young men were preparing to lay down their lives for the nation. Britten was branded a coward. The title character of his opera Owen Wingrave has a similar experience. When Owen rejects the strict military traditions of his family, he is disinherited. At the work’s climax, Owen declares “in peace I have found myself”. You can almost hear Britten willing him to take a stand.
So it is appropriate, in the centenary year of the first world war’s outbreak, that the Aldeburgh Festival should choose Owen Wingrave as its centrepiece. Commissioned by the BBC, Britten wrote it in the late 1960s, at the time of the Vietnam war, and conducted the original 1970 recording in the Snape Maltings, where Aldeburgh’s new production will be mounted …
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Two-for-one tickets are available for the following events and dates:
Owen Wingrave: Monday June 16 and Wednesday June 18, 7.30pm
Chamber Orchestra of Europe Soloists: Saturday June 21, 11am
Children’s Crusade: Sunday June 22, 3pm
Arcanto Quartet I: Thursday June 26, 7.30pm
Chamber Orchestra of Europe I: Friday June 27
Arcanto Quartet II: Saturday June 28, 11am
Klangforum Wien I: Saturday June 28, 3pm
Klangforum Wien II: Saturday June 28, 10pm
To take advantage of this offer enter the code AMFT14 at ft.com/aldeburgh