Those who worried about the First World War centenary focus of the 2014 Festival could not have read how it would set its face so resolutely against the military spectacle of its annual Tattoo neighbour. And nowhere should that have been more evident than in the presence of so much of the music of conscientious objector Benjamin Britten.
And yet. The undercurrent of menace so obvious in the opening bars of the score, and Neil Bartlett' clever staging in this Aldeburgh Festival co-production, is not solely about the warmongers. The protagonist in Britten's "pacifist" opera clearly shares some of the pomposity that ignores the doom suggested in the family name, and Britten and Myfanwy Piper's treatment of the Henry James story is no simple polemic. For all his convictions, Britten recognised that the truth was never plain and rarely simple.
The strength of Bartlett's production is it is both. I cannot think of another recent opera production with quite such a compelling narrative drive, always taking its direction from the music - crisply played by the young musicians of the Britten-Pears Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth - but superbly theatrical. When the plot goes a bit Jane Austen in the second act, Bartlett sweeps us along expertly, like an episode of Downton, until the brilliant simplicity of his staging (and Simon Daw's design and Ian Scott's lighting) truly reveals itself in the final scenes.
Co-conspirators in this conspicuous success are the members of his fine cast, the tone set by the magnificently adaptable voice of Jonathan Summers as Spencer Coyle, who embodies the ambiguities of the argument. But young baritone Ross Ramgobin deserves special praise for standing out among better-known names.
This review appeared in later editions of Saturday's Herald
"All artists are afraid," says the ageing actor early on in this new English translation of Austrian literary giant Thomas Bernhard's mid-1970s dramatic treatise on life, art and an actor's lot. Subtitled A Portrait Of The Artist As An Old Man, Bernhard's play has the title character turn up at a wood-panelled Ostend hotel on New Year's Eve while a storm rages outside. As played by Peter Eyre, Minetti makes his entrance quietly, but, as he tells anyone who pretends to listen, he's here to meet a noted theatre director, who looks set to cast him as King Lear thirty years after he turned his back on the classics and killed his career.
As he waits, Minetti cuts a hangdog figure who plays to an ever-changing audience of drunken revellers, locked in a limbo of his own making, out of step and out of time. At first he accosts a woman in a red dress lost in a champagne-fuelled reverie. Later it's a young woman waiting for her lover who leaves him with a transistor radio playing an easy-listening version of David Bowie song Kooks. All the while Minetti waxes lyrical, his audience fluid, but at least they're still there.
Tom Cairns' production of his and Eyre's own translation is a stately and melancholy affair that navigates the flotsam and jetsam of a generation who doesn't care around his attention-seeking idea of the artist as someone higher than mere mortals.
Only when Minetti is alone without anyone watching in the play's final moments is he unable to function, making his final exit to embrace the storm.
Wu Man, Sanubar Tursun
WHAT a night in Greyfriars Kirk on Friday. Pretty much nothing went to plan. Yet what was salvaged from the wreckage of Plan A turned into a head-nodding, foot-tapping, rhythmic jamboree from which I emerged an hour later as high as the proverbial kite, and from which the only element missing was Aly Bain, who, if he had wandered in from a nearby hostelry, fiddle under chin, would have found it irresistible not to join in, and whose contributions, moreover, would have fitted into the proceedings in the pentatonic manner born.
Four Chinese musicians, under the leadership of Wu Man, probably the world's greatest exponent of the pipa, a small but powerful lute-like instrument, were scheduled to explore the differences and connections between Chinese and Central Asian musical repertoires and culture. In stepped the UK Government, consummately bureaucratic as ever: it really is what they do best. Two visas were denied, and four musicians became two. In two days, Wu Man and Sanubar Tursun, singer and player of a mind-blowing instrument called the Dutar, which looks like a long-necked lute but sounds like a rhythm guitar with fangs, built a fresh programme, God bless 'em.
And it was a scorcher: Chinese and Asian folk music in overdrive, with Tursun's terrifyingly earthy voice, when in overdrive, powerful enough to strip paint from walls and enamel from teeth, while Wu Man's glittering virtuosity and intellectual integrity added fuel to her verbal denunciation of the Cultural Revolution. And, though the two musicians might not know this, the fabulous evening also underlined the universality of folk music, which touched everything in the programme.
WHAT a stonker of a concert the Arditti Quartet produced on Saturday night in the Greyfriars series, yet it was one that was, in some ways, unexpected. The truth is that nobody was clear precisely what sort of concert we were in for: the last composers you would expect in a line-up for an Arditti programme would be John Dowland and the great madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo. All manner of opinions were advanced in the queue; then we went in and found out.
It was indeed a fully-fledged, full-fat, fully-armed Arditti concert with all five Ardittis working at the edge of the unexpected. Five? Yep; there's a new Arditti on the block, Jake, a young counter-tenor, son of violinist and founder Irvine Arditti, not yet quite fully formed in maturity of voice, but with a lovely, cool, clear and pure high sound.
He sang the great Dowland numbers Flow My Tears and In Darkness Let Me Dwell, along with four Gesualdo madrigals, including Moro, Lasso, while the group, in arrangements by Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, wove a fabric of expressionist and modernistic textures and techniques around the songs. It was so different it was almost shocking, if beguiling, intriguing and pregnant with potential (How about the originals, with voices, juxtaposed with the new versions?)
Before Paredes' own Canciones Lunaticas, for Jake, Irvine, and the gang, a fine piece, here and there a wee bit redolent of Pierrot Lunaire, the main quartet powered through Brian Ferneyhough's Dum Transisset 1 to 4, a characteristically dense, complex and somewhat impenetrable composition (though I got the Dies Irae link) with classic Arditti virtuosity and dexterity. Whew. Tough stuff.
Bach's Mass in B Minor
Having sung Lassus in Greyfriars, conductor Philippe Herreweghe and the beautifully blended voices of Collegium Vocale Gent moved to the big hall, the 18 singers joined by 24 period instrumentalists for Bach's great portmanteau chorale showpiece. Jonathan Mills has promoted many such chamber-sized concerts into the orchestral hall, with varying success, but the reward of a Saturday night full house came with no reservations about the way the music filled the space. We could have done without the noise of the Tattoo fireworks immediately after the interval, but there is little the EIF director can do about that.
It was the quality of the sound of the baroque winds in the instrumental ensemble that first gave notice of the very special music this team makes, their standard later matched by that of the trio of natural trumpets. Of the singers we know to expect as much. Theirs is a relaxed, integrated sound with the soloists stepping out of the ensemble, a million miles from notions of austere "authenticity". The balance between the voices was exemplary, and so too was that between players and singers for the entire two-hour duration of the work. The pinnacle of that came in the Credo and the sequence of choruses - Et Incarnates Est, Crucifixus and Et Resurrexit Tertia Die - that culminate in a fanfare from the trumpets. Nowhere else is it as clear that Bach's cadences and chords are the building blocks of Western music.
It is permitted to have favourites, however, and it was the contributions of soprano Dorothee Mields and English tenor Thomas Hobbs that I enjoyed most among the soloists, nowhere more so than when they came together in the Domine Deus duet of the Gloria.
Since the day, decades ago, when I first read that Debussy's late Sonatas demonstrated a tendency to return to classicism, I have stubbornly refused to accept that thesis, which seemed to me to represent the antithesis of everything Debussy thought, felt, believed, and did.
So when the Canadian Trio Verlaine reached the performance of the composer's great Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp at the climax of their Queen's Hall recital on Saturday morning, I shut my book, opened my mind and ears and just listened. Nothing in their outstanding performance of the Sonata suggested a closed form: I was not distracted by superficial cross-references; indeed, however flautist Loran McGhee, violist David Harding, and harpist Heidi Crutzen worked their Debussian magic, they captured the flow and the feeling that delivers this music as an entity, free of bumps, paragraphs, and all the structural definition and articulation Debussy so wanted to avoid. This was beautiful, fluid, atmospheric and seam-free.
The rest of the programme was drop-dead gorgeous, with a crisp arrangement of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, a lovely Elegy by Bax, Takemitsu's hypnotic study in stasis, And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind, and a fabulous Trio by R Murray Schafer seemingly characterised by Puck at his most playful and mischievous, bounding back on to the page and into the proceedings at every opportunity.