Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, UK – review

Some places live on powerfully through the work of creative artists. Dickens’s London, the Lake District as viewed through the poetry of Wordsworth and East Bergholt in Constable’s paintings have become some of the most familiar and enduring images of England.

Composers have not generally added much to this tally, but Benjamin Britten is an exception. Throughout 2013, the composer’s centenary year, the sounds of the flat, open fens and bracing coastal winds of Suffolk, where he lived almost all his life, are being transported to the four corners of the world. Over the next 12 months the opera Peter Grimes alone is due to get more than 100 performances across Europe and North America, and as far afield as Russia, China and Japan.

For the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Britten and his partner Peter Pears, the challenge is not to make the composer’s world real – the Maltings concert hall looks out over the fens and a chill wind was whistling last weekend even on a fine day – but to rise to the challenge of the centenary in an original way.

Capitalising on the festival’s unique sense of place has been one of the answers. Peter Grimes, where Britten expresses his love for Aldeburgh most directly (“I am native, rooted here”, Grimes sings) was chosen for the opening night, and the town itself is playing a role. Theatre group Punchdrunk is offering a “theatrical journey through Peter Grimes’s Aldeburgh”, in which individuals are given audio guides and sent off around the town to encounter the people and places of Britten’s opera, at one point entering a house where they eavesdrop on Ellen Orford, Grimes’s closest friend, as she darns the apprentice’s jersey.

Another event will take the entire opera out into the open air. The pair of concert performances of Peter Grimes that are opening the festival are to be followed by three more next week staged on Aldeburgh beach – weather permitting.

Taking no chances with the opening night, the festival kept Friday’s Peter Grimes dry and warm inside the Maltings. Even so, there were risks: apart from the now historic BBC television film, made at the Maltings in 1969, Peter Grimes has never been staged in the hall, because the work is on too big a scale. Although only given in concert form, this performance still felt constrained. The music needs room to breathe and it does not get that here.

Instead, the focus was intimately on Grimes himself. A few years ago Alan Oke gave the festival a memorable portrayal of Gustav von Aschenbach in Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, and his Peter Grimes was no less intense. As though peering into a pit of despair, Oke portrays a man with black thoughts deep in his heart, and the moments when he was taken to his vocal limits only added to the sense of a soul teetering on the edge.

The supporting cast, led by Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford and David Kempster as Balstrode, was well enough chosen to represent the colourful characters of the Borough. Steuart Bedford, who worked closely with Britten as a conductor at the end of the composer’s life, led a performance as thoughtful as it was dramatic, and that just left the Maltings itself as the main problem. Much of the Britten-Pears Orchestra’s playing was swallowed up in the booming acoustic. Fortunately, though, the BBC’s judicious placing of microphones picked up more detail for the radio broadcast and that promises better for the live 2CD recording which will be rushed out on sale next week – a permanent memento of the Britten centenary festival.

As always, there is more than just Britten to the programme. On Saturday morning, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the festival’s artistic director, and his cellist sister Valérie put together an interesting programme of like-minded, 20th-century composers at Aldeburgh Church. Music by Shostakovich, Elliott Carter and Kurtág – four of his Signs, Games and Messages, drawing concentrated playing from Valérie Aimard – showed how each stripped down their musical material to essentials and led naturally to a rigorous performance of Britten’s Cello Sonata.

This year’s programme also includes a larger number than usual of special festival commissions to mark the centenary and alongside a running tribute to Jonathan Harvey, who died last year.

On Saturday afternoon, the Latvian Radio Choir sang a programme of mostly unaccompanied English choral works that paired composers from the Tudor era with performances of four Harvey works, ranging from his hallucinatory The Angels to the less convincing experimental sounds of The Summer Cloud’s Awakening, dating from 2001.

As the choir picked its way skilfully through Harvey’s testing thickets of wordless chanting, the skies darkened ominously through the lofty windows of Blythburgh Church and an East coast gale started to blow. With a week to go, the festival organisers already have their fingers crossed. The centenary year deserves some good fortune and hopefully there will be a fair wind for Grimes on the beach.

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