Aldeburgh Festival 2014, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK – review

It would be very predictable if the Aldeburgh Festival were to focus every year on the music of its founder, Benjamin Britten. That was never the way when Britten was alive and this year’s festival has a number of other composers running as subsidiary strands of interest – Ligeti, the “spectralists” such as Tristan Murail, and (on and off) Janáček.

There is not the space at the Maltings in Snape to do justice to Janáček’s operas, so it is mostly the chamber works that are getting the attention. On the opening weekend the Pavel Haas Quartet offered a pair of afternoon recitals at Aldeburgh Church, in which they played Janáček’s two string quartets alongside the two by his Czech forebear Smetana.

It was a telling juxtaposition. In the early programme the Pavel Haas Quartet’s heartfelt performances left no doubt that Smetana’s String Quartet No.1, “From my Life”, is a compelling if typical example of 19th-century nationalism, whereas how much more personal Janáček’s String Quartet No.1, “Kreutzer Sonata”, is by comparison. His fingerprints are everywhere – the restless bursts of energy, the quickly extinguished glimpses of a yearning spirit.

All this is present, too, in Janáček’s inimitable song-cycle The Diary of One who Disappeared, which formed the climax of Sunday evening’s recital at Blythburgh Church. Only Janáček could choose such a quirky line-up of performers as tenor, mezzo, female vocal trio and piano accompaniment. The combination of rustic tale and sophisticated music is also one of his trademarks and Mark Padmore dealt devastatingly here with the intense, high-lying tenor part, well seconded by mezzo Pamela Helen Stephen.

It was when he was performing this highly individual work that Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor, accompanist, composer) was struck by the idea of setting an extract from Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid for the same unusual mix of performers. His Echo and Narcissus had its premiere alongside the Janáček and proved to be a skilful and concentrated piece of storytelling in its own right. Wigglesworth knows how to create atmosphere and drama out of a few notes and the same performers, with the composer as accompanist, created a compelling drama in miniature. For Wigglesworth, like Janáček before him, opera beckons.

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