Keeping alive the spirit of a founding father or, in the case of Suffolk’s Aldeburgh festival, two – the composer Benjamin Britten, who died in 1976, and the tenor Peter Pears, whose death followed a decade later – is full of hazards: how to respect habits and fealties; how to sail free when holding to a shore. The festival, founded in 1948, has taken time to find answers, with many a trial and error on the way.
Paradoxically this year, when Covid has wreaked havoc, one thing is clear. A fruitful liberty has been won. The various activities at the home venue of Snape Maltings – once a brewery, now rebuilt as a concert hall, and set amid the snaking waters and vast flatlands of the Alde estuary – are now united under a new title, Britten Pears Arts. Honouring the two founders in perpetuity, it’s an elegant solution.
Instead of the usual festival, concerts have been programmed in weekend clusters. I heard four in three days and relished their spark, coherence and variety – not to mention the vital pleasure of being there, breathing the same space as the musicians, who performed a charming but probably hopeless pirouette, now masking, now unmasking as they walked from green room to stage. Britten’s music, in two instances lovingly arranged by Colin Matthews (with the mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge a glowing soloist in Charm of Lullabies), ran through like a silvery thread.
In the first of two different programmes by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Sian Edwards, the music of John Tavener (1944-2013) was the focus. Works by Handel, Tansy Davies and Britten created a subtle framework for the belated world premiere of Tavener’s La Noche Oscura (2012), a sacred cantata for countertenor, oboe and strings. The composer wrote it as his life was ebbing away, a cry of anguish and grief at its climax. The singer (Andrew Watts) and oboist (Nicholas Daniel) brilliantly traced their sorrowful, entwined lines, together and alone.
The second Britten Sinfonia concert featured more world premieres. John Woolrich’s Hark! The Echoing Air (after Purcell) was a quirky, rhythmically dislocated showpiece for the young British trumpeter Matilda Lloyd. As featured composer, Tansy Davies had written an arresting new piece for strings and percussion, Monolith: I Extend My Arms. Its starting point is a monochrome photograph from 1930 by Claude Cahun. The sound world is weighty yet gaseous, earthbound and ethereal, granite-like but translucent and refined. Scraps of melody emerge as if written in invisible ink. Scales bubble up through the orchestra like vapours. Davies achieves this through dense counterpoint, a close shading and cross-hatching of every technique in the string player’s lexicon.
In the midst of so much intense listening, Nadine Benjamin’s multimedia theatre piece Beam: Everybody Can Stand in their Own Light hit home with noise, pain, challenge, humour. Fast-moving, deftly put together with members of Decus Ensemble and sharp music direction by the pianist Jan Rautio, this is Benjamin’s personal, fragmented story. It’s a raw collage of addiction, racism, bullying and sexual abuse, with unifying redemption found, by no means simply, through the power of her rapturous voice. This performer, and her fellow musicians, have stood up bravely, entertainingly, and made us think.
Provocative insights can be whispered too. To end the weekend, Andrew Staples, tenor, and Alisdair Hogarth, piano, concluded a recital of Britten interwoven with a lockdown song cycle by Stephen Hough, performed for the first time in front of an audience and inspired by the poet and mystic Rumi. The duo challenged Hough to write a piece that “embraced the difficulties that social distances presents to live music-making”, which could have been a very long piece indeed.
Instead, Hough wrote modular elements that could combine in their own various ways: here indicated by a lighting scheme as we listened in darkness. I’m not sure I followed all the elements, but the bonus of listening intently, rather than – as you might usually, with light and a programme, sitting reading words – was reward enough. The piece ends with a tiny lullaby. Magically, Staples hardly raised his voice for the entire recital. It was over all too soon.
Summer at Snape is at Snape Maltings/Aldeburgh, Suffolk, until 31 August