Reviewed from live BBC Radio 3 broadcast... This mouth-watering Aldeburgh Festival programme included two world premieres, an Elliott Carter revival, and the startling juxtaposition of very different contemporaneous works by George Butterworth and Alban Berg from the years leading to and including World War One. August 2016 is the centenary of The Battle of the Somme.
The concert opened in festive fashion with J. S. Bach’s C-minor Fantasia and Fugue for organ orchestrated sympathetically and brilliantly by Edward Elgar, the first section richly expressive, the second a riot of interaction and colour, not least from percussion. Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad (1912) is an orchestral Rhapsody inspired by A. E. Housman’s poetry, which the composer had previously set. It is a deeply eloquent and poignant example of English pastoralism and has been well-served this year by Sakari Oramo and Mark Elder. Under Oliver Knussen A Shropshire Lad was given with tenderness, flexibility, ink-still-wet spontaneity and understated passion, while leaving in no doubt Butterworth’s heartfelt and evocative musical wealth.
Butterworth was claimed by a sniper’s bullet at The Somme. He was 31. Joseph William Stock was a sniper in The King’s Rifles who survived The Somme but was felled in 1918, the also-young victim of a German bullet. To memorialise his uncle, known as Willie, Gary Carpenter has included in his eponymous piece some ditties that were familiar to and voiced by the British trench-warfare soldiers. Scored for large orchestra and opening in uneasy fashion the popular songs are fragmented and, pictorially, left to rot in the mud. The music is an uneasy setting, if with the occasional explosive and militaristic connotations of war, but mostly this atmospheric score is ominous and ends with a long-held roll on side drum that may be heard as signalling the anxious wait for orders to go “over the top”.
Unfortunately baritone Benjamin Appl’s indisposition took with it the European premiere of Elliott Carter’s The American Sublime (2011), utilising words by Wallace Stevens and described in one review as “dramatic, vibrant ... direct and forceful” (from Boosey & Hawkes's website). Hopefully the BBC can reinstate this late example from Carter’s output soonest. Its replacement, Sound Fields (2007) – composed when Carter was in his 100th year, a statistic that confirms him as being born before WWI – is for strings and during its five or so minutes makes much illustration and intrigue from thrifty resources.
The concert’s second half continued with another premiere, Stone Dancer by Charlotte Bray. She says about the sculptures that inspired the music: “Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer, Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s Large Horse and Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space were all created during the years 1913-14, and each of the artists served, in some capacity, in the First World War.” Gaudier-Brzeska was killed during the conflict, just a few weeks before Butterworth. Bray's Stone Dancer is pensive, dynamic and outgoing, deftly detailed. Like Carpenter’s also-ten-minute Willie Stock, it will repay attention.
Finally, one of the great masterpieces of the previous century, Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, his Opus 6 completed in 1915, post-Mahlerian music of remarkable complexity and vision, feeding off its tense times yet ageless in its capacity to compel and thrill. Deep-seated passions and consciousness are apparent throughout, especially so in the abyss-journeying final ‘March’, which is related to Mahler 6 and not just because of the hammer-blows.
A few rocky moments aside, reminding of what a colossal challenge playing and placing this score is, Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a lucid account of music stuffed-full with notes and annotations, and they were quite urgent in the nightmarish Finale (which, to my mind, Karajan’s DG recording set a standard so far not equalled, not even by Boulez) and, surprisingly, those hammer-blows went for very little; still, this is great music here performed with authority, conviction and insight. The concert was relayed in excellent quality.