Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, UK

On the road into the Suffolk seaside town where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears founded a music festival in 1948, the sign announcing Aldeburgh states “Anglia in Bloom Award 1998” – but someone has changed the numerals to make it 1898. It’s an in-joke, designed to acknowledge that not only outsiders see Aldeburgh as a museum piece.

Quaintness is part of Aldeburgh’s charm, but it gives a misleading impression of the festival, which is as sophisticated and up-to-the-minute as the town is endearingly behind the times. That distinction has become black-and-white since Pierre-Laurent Aimard arrived as artistic director two years ago. For much of the past quarter of a century, the festival was run by a coterie of English musicians whose view of the world was almost as insular as Aldeburgh’s. Aimard, a French pianist with a gift for creative programming, has virtually turned the festival on its head. Suddenly Aldeburgh feels less parochial, less precious – and very international.

Britten and British artists have not been forgotten, as Saturday’s performance of The Rape of Lucretia underlined. But programme content is now dominated by composer-giants of musical modernism whom Aimard knew intimately, and the performers are an eclectic mix of European musicians who share his intellectually uncompromising ideals. How else to explain the choice of a Messiaen ghetto-blaster to open the festival on Friday, or the award of an Aldeburgh residency to conductor-less ensemble Spira Mirabilis?

Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum had never been given at Aldeburgh; Simon Rattle, who conducted it, hadn’t appeared there for 20 years. It was an inspired pairing because Rattle, like Aimard, has long flown the flag for Messiaen’s questing aesthetic.

Et exspecto, a 30-minute fanfare for winds and percussion, doesn’t offer much musical development, but sonically it shatters the conventional parameters of concert hall listening – thanks to Messiaen’s use of massive gongs, producing not so much a sound, more a physical sensation. In the cavernous Maltings acoustic these precisely calibrated rumblings and roars resembled ritualistic exchanges across Himalayan valleys, like intimations of the earth’s awakening. It wasn’t a question of decibels, though some in the audience did stop their ears. No, it added up to something more primeval, and the Maltings duly rocked.

With Rattle back at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, this was very much a family reunion – even more so after the interval, when Magdalena Kozená, the conductor’s wife, joined him for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. It complemented Et exspecto perfectly, for Mahler’s songs, like Messiaen’s gongs, draw on sounds and images of eastern culture to express a vision of eternity. The CBSO was at the top of its game, responding to Rattle’s encouragement with wonderfully diaphanous sounds. Even so, it was Kozená who set the tone. Rattle had warned us before the start that she was far from well – but her determination, allied to the delicacy of Mahler’s scoring and the deep-seated warmth of her timbre, resulted in a performance of exceptional candour. All other sounds – even the bluster of tenor Michael Schade – faded into the background as Kozená, earth spirit-cum-soul singer, communed with the music, squeezing every last gasp of its world-weariness.

Spira Mirabilis, which played Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony on Saturday morning, was formed just three years ago by a handful of young Italians who wanted more from orchestral life than implementing decisions taken by conductors. The 35-strong group now embraces 10 nationalities. Their democratic approach has all the footprints of youthful idealism: working things out for yourself is what you do when you leave the security of the family home, and anything that makes us listen afresh to the familiar repertoire has to be a good thing. The concept is marketable, and the historical pedigree is impeccable – conductor-less performances were the norm in Beethoven’s day. The performance was nicely phrased and drilled, though hardly revelatory.

The Rape of Lucretia brought together an excellent cast under Oliver Knussen. The concert format magnified all the opera’s well-known strengths and weaknesses – its instrumental pungency as much as its overweening artiness, the urgency of musical dramatisation as well as the blatant disjuncture between pagan story and Christian symbolism. Most of the words were swallowed by the Maltings acoustic. What did shine out was the originality of Britten’s narrator parts, sung with tremendous verve by Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton. Angelika Kirchschlager was a Lucretia of contrasting purity and sensuousness. Christopher Purves impressed as Collatinus, Peter Coleman-Wright less so as Tarquinius.

It is reassuring to know that – alongside Aimard’s innovations, of which there will be ample evidence over the next two weeks – Aldeburgh remains a beacon of Britten performance. Maybe the perpetrator of the roadside joke should have been more ambitious: “Festival in bloom 2011” seems more appropriate.

Aldeburgh Festival

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