It would have been an unusual coup de théâtre. To give his sea voyage to the Orkney Islands a memorable send-off, guitarist James Boyd had the novel idea of ending his duo recital at Aldeburgh’s yacht club by boarding his boat berthed outside and sailing away. As an exit, that certainly beats taking a bow and walking into the wings.
Unfortunately, the English summer refused to play its part. Having spent the previous 24 hours on board being buffeted by gale-force winds, Boyd eventually gave in and moved his boat to safety up the estuary. “That awful night,” he told the audience, would be “seared in my memory for years to come.” To anybody who knows England’s east coast and the music of Benjamin Britten, Aldeburgh Festival’s founder, this was Peter Grimes weather – the sort of gales that blast through his opera with baleful brass and thunderous timpani.
Just escaping the worst of it, the 65th Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts happily opened without hindrance. With Britten’s centenary due next year, a conscious decision has been taken to turn the focus of this year’s festival elsewhere, and the choice fell on another composer with a birthday to celebrate: Oliver Knussen, who is 60 this year. If two facts are known about Knussen, they are that he writes music of scintillating, complex beauty, and that he doesn’t always deliver new works on time. At Aldeburgh’s opening weekend he lived up to both.
The main attraction was a new production of Knussen’s operatic double-bill based on children’s books by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. A notable success when they were performed at Glyndebourne in 1985, they have waited until now for another staging in the UK. Perhaps that has to do with the challenge of how to present the operas visually: Sendak’s much-loved drawings are so integral to the stories that it is hard to see how to manage without them.
This is where the director, Netia Jones, has delivered her masterstroke. Taking the original illustrations, she has turned them into animated projections – easy perhaps to imagine, but not to bring off as triumphantly as she has. In the months before he died earlier this year, Sendak blessed the project and would surely be delighted to see how sensitively it has been carried out.
Are these really children’s operas or not? Everything we see – the fantastical journey to a land of comic beasties in Where the Wild Things Are, the nursery-tale line-up of characters in Higglety Pigglety Pop! – says yes. But Knussen has supplied music that is so intricately adult, even when it is addressing fairy-tale or comedy, that the operas rouse our grown-up intellect as much as they tickle our sense of childish whimsy.
The Aldeburgh casts, led by Claire Booth and Lucy Schaufer, were first-rate, and the conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, led the excellent Britten Sinfonia on aural flights of fancy. The only problem was the acoustic of the Maltings at Snape, which caused the orchestra to boom so heavily that much of the detail was lost and the words were drowned out. Let’s hope the balance will be better when the production comes to London’s Barbican in November.
The operas were to have been followed by the premiere of a new Knussen work for piano and orchestra, but, like so many of his premieres, this one failed to appear. There was an unexpected 60th birthday present, however, when the composer was presented with the 2012 Critics’ Circle Outstanding Musician Award after the performance on Saturday.
The rest of the opening weekend offered the usual wide range of music. A Saturday morning recital by cellist Miklós Perényi framed solo cello works by Britten’s contemporaries Sándor Veress and Lutoslawski (the typically inventive Sacher Variations) with lyrical performances of two of Bach’s Cello Suites. In the afternoon, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero followed some rather clangorous Chopin and Brahms with a selection of her famed improvisations on themes submitted by the audience. Her 10-minute fantasy on the theme of Gone With the Wind, starting out in the style of Chopin and ending like a tango, raised a big cheer.
And then there was the land-locked duo recital at Aldeburgh Yacht Club by tenor Robin Tritschler and guitarist James Boyd. Britten’s subtly oriental Songs From the Chinese opened their programme, followed by two new works inspired by the sea, Elspeth Brooke’s thoughtful Where Lies the Land and Jonathan Dove’s The Immortal Ship, which built up a power quite out of proportion to its size. Given the dry sound in the yacht club, it was fortunate that Tritschler’s voice is so well produced.
Commissioning so many new works is as brave an endeavour on Boyd’s part as his voyage to the Orkneys. By this time he should have set sail on a fair wind and the same can definitely be said of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival.