Aldeburgh Festival featured-composer Olga Neuwirth’s updated version of her 1996 Quasare/Pulsare was written for Trio Frühstück (the original is for string quartet) and premiered earlier this year in Vienna, and here executed with intensity and commitment. It is nothing if not theatrical, opening with the lights dimmed and one immensely long note. This is followed by knocks on the cello, foreshadowing some extraordinary effects that will be drawn from that instrument, then a mixture of bowing and pizzicato, and soon the arrival of a ‘prepared’ piano, all of it underlining Neuwirth’s fascination with the percussive and with pushing instruments to the limit.
But Neuwirth is also working on a larger canvas. Throughout, Quasare/Pulsare II contrasts repetition with unpredictability: one inevitably thinks of radio static (especially given the frequent use of very high pitches), heat gradients and varying densities of gases in space. Are the motifs that eventually emerge alien signals, or simply the universe making sense at last? Either way, the return to that single sustained note suggests that Neuwirth’s universe, while containing apparent chaos, is not a formless place.
If an exact mapping of Neuwirth’s music to a programme sometimes feels elusive – and this was no doubt intentional – Charlotte Bray’s That Crazed Smile is much more representational. One of a series of short works based on episodes from Shakespeare, this one depicts Puck’s antics with the young lovers and the magic potion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It starts with a kind of shimmering perpetuum mobile that places us straight into the enchanted forest, replete with satisfyingly eerie sevenths and much high pitch, then grows more fretful before finally vanishing into thin air. Likeably delivered by Trio Frühstück, at five delightful minutes it deserves to enter the repertoire of any imaginative ensemble.
The two recent works were sandwiched between Haydn and Beethoven Piano Trios, the former surprisingly the more striking, although the reading of the ‘Ghost’ was a perfect contrast to the Bray, energetic in such a different way. The highlight of the Haydn was the third movement – rather conventional, perhaps, with the piano to the fore, and violinist Maria Sawerthal shone although balances sometimes disfavoured her.