Review: Aldeburgh Festival - Skryabin’s Poem Of Ecstasy @ Snape Maltings
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Snape Maltings, Suffolk
Saturday 15th June 2013
So, I had finally arrived in Suffolk. I had settled in at Saxmundham with my host via Couch Surfing. It was the first time I had done this and it was very daunting.
The idea of staying ten nights may have been a bit over-indulgent on my part. But to appease my host, I was happy for him to be my plus one for the concerts at the 66th Aldeburgh Festival. He was very pleased at the prospect.
I still find myself gazing at the Bible-length programme of the two-week festival. It also has an intoxicating new programme smell, which I find hard to resist at times. It is becoming quite tatty as well from all my reading of it. Yet what I saw at the festival was merely a drop in the ocean of the festival. Not to mention the yearlong programme of events for Benjamin Britten’s centenary.
Harry Potter fans can rejoice as the Aldeburgh Festival mainly takes place in a little village called Snape. It moved there after the venues five miles away in Aldeburgh (pronounced All-braa), became too small for the productions and concerts that grew in ambition. Next to the village lies the Old Maltings brewery, which the local composer Britten had converted into a concert hall back 1967. In the countryside of Suffolk lays one of the best concert halls in the world. The acoustics are said to be some of the best around.
How excited I was to be in Snape. Walking into the concert hall, you could see the old brickwork of the original building. A huge stage lumbered out. The audience consisted of many Londoners, some locals and me from Wales. The seats themselves were not the best though. It was no more than a fold up thatched seat. I found myself slipping off them a bit. I can see why people were buying the special Aldeburgh padding for seats. At £9, I think I’ll get one if I come back. But why there isn’t better seating puzzles me.
The evening began with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov. It was an eclectic mix of music. Debussy started us off, with his Children’s Corner Suite. This little box of delights has been orchestrated from piano by Hans Abrahamsen and was this version's UK premier. Like with all transcribed piano music, an orchestra can open out and reveal the music in a finer form. I only recognised the last movement, regrettably called Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. This was a dance popular I believe with African-Americans in Debussy’s time and whoever danced it the best would win a cake. Nice fact, as long as we just try to ignore the racist slur here.
Next was an unusual work by Colin Matthews. His Horn Concerto played by Richard Watkins, started off very curiously. We had the players on stage but no conductor or soloist. It was only after the musicians started playing, just after brass outside the concert hall had been heard that the conductor walked on stage and then the horn player. This was not in error, but intended by the composer. It’s interesting to see players without a conductor even if it is for a minute or two. It could go pear-shaped, but wouldn’t. This was very much a busy work, with Watkins having to go all over the stage and just outside. The music was grim and intriguing. I would describe it as "a good day in a thunder storm".
During the interval, we went about and looked at as much as we could of the place, taking in the artwork and architecture. This was sadly my only concert I had asked for in the main hall. I do wish I had asked for more, since the venue is such a beautiful and splendiferous place. I have very easily fallen in love with Suffolk and am all ready arranging trips back. It may not be Wales, but Suffolk sure does have its own distinct charm and vitality to it.
Arriving back into the hall, I was to hear more music by the late Jonathan Harvey. It was only the week before that I had seen his last opera Wagner Dream at the WMC. Although he never said he was a Buddhist entirely, his fascination with it took control of his compositions. The brilliantly and poetically named 80 Breaths From Tokyo (another UK premier) has screeching serenity and booming clarity. My plus one said that during it he heard a very low note. The lowest he had ever heard. I didn’t hear it, put perhaps it was the tuba, with the additional electronics Harvey was known for?
Finally for this concert, it concluded with The Poem Of Ecstasy by Aleksandr Skryabin. I’ve yet to hear this work live or even at all till now. Listening to it, it sounded like one of those works which heralded in the 20th Century with that firm and bold new handling of new music from the likes of Mahler, Debussy and perhaps even Skryabin (if that makes sense?). The romantic side is still there but evolving into new heights. This would be the easiest work to look up from the concert. He feels like a one-hit-wonder with this score. We never hear anything else by him. Time to change that, I think. He also said that "When you listen to Ecstasy, look straight into the eye of the sun!" Doubt I shall be doing that anytime soon.
With a week full of cultural refreshments, what else could Suffolk throw at me? Stockhausen was next that eveningâ€¦
The Benjamin Britten Centenary celebrations continue all year in Suffolk including the Snape Proms in August, his last opera Death In Venice and the Centenary Concert both in November with much more programmed.