Ancient and modern: one day at Aldeburgh [10 June 2017]

Written by: Barnaby Page

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Aldeburgh Festival
Saturday, June 10, 2017

Benjamin Britten was thoroughly interested in the dialogue between the old and the new; so it was fitting that the first two premieres of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, Olga Neuwirth’s A Film Music War Requiem and James Weeks’s Primo Libro, both engage with the same challenge.

Neuwirth’s work, one of a half-dozen by the Austrian scattered around the Aldeburgh programme, was first performed in Paris in 2014 by Ensemble 2e2m and made its UK debut here in the hands of nine London Sinfonietta members under Gerry Cornelius.

This War Requiem, written to accompany Alfred Machin’s 1914 film Maudite Soit la Guerre, bears little overt relation to Britten’s except in its use of a First World War-era text (and Machin’s film predates the Great War, if by a matter of months). But it has the same sense of bitter irony – Wilfred Owen’s “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, so eloquent in the Britten, would serve perfectly well as a subtitle. Unsurprising, then, that Neuwirth employs the traditions of film accompaniment more savagely than some composers who have recently produced music for silent film.

Olga Neuwirth

Certainly, we hear responses to visual cues – a train rushing then slowing, glissando effects that might suggest aircraft but also hint at sirens, and percussion-intensified fortissimo for a bomb’s inferno. A melancholy thought is, inevitably, given to woodwinds. The calm before the storm is silent, powerfully so.

But Neuwirth also works on a less painterly level. A distorted Palm Court sensibility in many earlier passages reveals the viciousness never far beneath the genteel characters’ peace-time politesse. Later, repetitive motifs imply military discipline and mechanisation; they also foreshadow the heroine’s final “cruel discovery” long before she makes it, leaping ahead of the plot in a manner that piano accompaniments rarely did.

It’s persuasive, and frequently subtler than it sounds: a fine pairing with the fifty-minute film, which itself is gorgeously hand-coloured and compelling all the way to the close-up – rare for the period – that concludes it, even if its anti-war credentials are a little undermined by Machin’s complete disregard for the fate of an innocent rustic caught up in the shooting…

Before the Film Music War Requiem, the Aldeburgh audience heard two shorter Neuwirth pieces, from the 1990s, both with countertenor Andrew Watts. The Five Daily Miniatures mostly very fragmented; thoughts of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King are unavoidable. Neuwirth’s interest in the percussive is much in evidence, with not only the piano but also the voice used thus. Most memorable, though, are a couple of occasions where fragmentation turns briefly to lyricism – ridiculously saccharine in the final setting – as if a more conventional narrative is trying to break through, only to disintegrate again. The texts come from Gertrude Stein, but for another short piece, …Morphologische Fragmente…, Neuwirth reaches back to Goethe. This has more continuity than the Miniatures – portended by the astoundingly long opening note – and as a result it’s easier to appreciate as pure music, in a kind of theme-and-variations form.

Photograph: Matthew Andrews

If Neuwirth’s aural world is shattered, that of the 16th-century Italian madrigal composers leading up to Gesualdo is resolutely cohesive. Yet as Exaudi’s concert reminded, they could often fit in the strangest fashion: so the oddly truncated parish church of Orford, a few miles from Snape, was an appropriate setting. In many ways the core, and certainly one of the highlights, of the programme was Vicentino’s Musica Prisca Caput, a tiny exercise which leads from standard-issue diatonic harmony, through chromaticism, into the weirdly wonderful world of micro-tonality. Explained by Exaudi’s director James Weeks as “the musical equivalent of nailing jelly to the wall” – though he followed up with some outstandingly clear technical detail – Vicentino’s experiments with micro-tonality and his contemporaries involved splitting a whole tone into five notes rather than three. The effect is of music that swells and ebbs, undulating in pitch rather than jumping from one note to another. This gives a feeling of density, crowdedness in the sound, which could be heard also in the world-premiere of excerpts from Weeks’s own Primo Libro.

He has attempted not a pastiche, but a reinterpretation of what Vicentino’s madrigals, which are mostly lost, might have sounded like. Written for six voices, the dense counterpoint of Primo Libro conjures an otherworldly effect, while the use of microtones induces the sense of a gradual drift away from unison, a restlessness not fully resolved even when the singers return to the original note … or is it the same note? Strikingly, too, the larger intervals that we are normally comfortable with now become a shock. Also notable in Exaudi’s concert were De Rore’s Calami Sonum Ferentesa – precise and super-clear – and a sonorous account of Luzzaschi’s Quivi Sospiri.

Back at Snape Maltings, the Belcea Quartet brought unfussy delivery of Haydn’s D-major String Quartet (Opus 20/4), concentrating on the small phrases, and later for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with Jörg Widmann. But the heart of the programme was an impassioned reading of Britten’s Third and final String Quartet, premiered four decades ago in this very room. The balance was outstanding, the cellist often standing out powerfully without drowning his colleagues. Highpoints included the exciting successive entries near the end of the second movement; beautiful long dreamy violin lines in the third; and the driving energy of the fourth – all this before the strange conclusion, which suggested that the stasis reached in the preceding bars is not so ultimate after all. Britten forces us to perceive them a second time, in memory, in a different way – much as Weeks with the re-imagined music of Italy, and Neuwirth with her no-longer-silent film.

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