Aldeburgh Festival – Elliott Carter Tribute

Trije glasbeniki [UK premiere]
String Trio
Epigrams [world premiere]

The Sword in the Stone – Concert Suite [arr. Oliver Knussen & Colin Matthews]
L’usignolo dell’imperatore
Dialogues II [UK premiere]
Aldeburgh Trilogy [world premiere of complete work]
Jeux vénitiens

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) & Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), Mark O’Brien (bass clarinet), Alexandra Wood (violin), Chris Yates (viola), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Kathryn Thomas (harp) & Malcolm Wilson (piano)]

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 June, 2013
Venue: Britten Studio / Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England

Elliott Carter. Photograph: Malcolm CrowthersElliott Carter (who died last October at the age of 103) enjoyed a productive association with the Aldeburgh Festival in his later years, hence it seemed only fitting that this two-stage concert with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – the latter part conducted by Carter’s most stalwart British advocate, Oliver Knussen – featured several works from his ‘late Indian summer’ together with the premiere of his very last piece.

Although the initial three pieces lasted for just ten minutes, their eventfulness of content was in inverse proportion to their brevity. Its Slovenian title translating as Three Musicians (2011), this thank-you to the Slovenian players who organised a festival there devoted to Carter’s music unfolds as a piquant discussion between flute, bass clarinet and harp staying just the right side of recalcitrance prior to its brusque close. Carter avoided the medium up to his penultimate year, yet the String Trio that emerged in 2011 is wholly characteristic in its dramatising of an instrumental argument in which violin and cello both alienate and provoke the viola through to a heated culmination in which this latter instrument claims the last defiant word. After such trenchancy, Rigmarole (2011) seemed more akin to the jeux d’esprits that pervade Carter’s output over his final three decades – the interplay between bass clarinet and cello yielding a succession of pithy motifs, even phrases, before these crystallise right at the close into a harmonic accord which is the more affecting for its tenacity.

Rightly left to the end of this early-evening recital, Epigrams (2012) has the distinction of being Carter’s final work: even then, as Oliver Knussen had pointed out beforehand, this set of twelve miniatures for violin, cello and piano turned out to be complete in all essentials – a breviary, indeed, of the composer’s mature idiom at its most concentrated and refined. Nor are these pieces mutually exclusive in form and expression, Carter evidently having designed them as an integral set in which salient ideas move between instruments while being transformed across and between individual pieces. The result is a relatively substantial (14-minute) encapsulation of all that makes ‘late-late Carter’ so singular and to be cherished.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Marco Borggreve / Deutsche GrammophonMusic by Carter occupied the central slots (either side of the interval) in the diverse and ingeniously programmed later concert from BCMG. When it appeared a decade ago, Dialogues (2003) excited attention for its eschewing the customary format of the composer’s late instrumental works – unfolding rather as a fluid series of interactions between piano and orchestra in which any attempt at supremacy from either party is quickly subsumed into the evolving structure. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (in the piano part written for and memorably taken by Nicolas Hodges) was alive to the changing persona evoked by the soloist, with Knussen ensuring the orchestral part sounded intricate but never wantonly complex.

Such qualities were no less evident, yet now in an even more compressed form, in Dialogues II (2012), written for Daniel Barenboim and essentially an accompanied cadenza which soloist and orchestra begin by trading incisive gestures, before the former initiates an expressive dialogue with the strings before launching an acerbic toccata-like passage such as spills over into a heightened resumption of the strings’ melodic idea and is, in turn, cancelled out by a curt response from the orchestral tutti. If its predecessor is a concerto-in-miniature, the present piece is more what might once have been termed a konzertstück and one, moreover, with the Romantic-era connotation of that term given an engagingly modernist twist.

Oliver Knussen. Photograph: Maurice FoxallEither side of the Carter were pieces by two composers who have also enjoyed close associations with Aldeburgh. Knussen has long been an advocate of Hans Werner Henze, and his revival of long forgotten or overlooked scores continued here with the ballet L’usingnolo dell’imperatore (1959). This mimed retelling of Andersen’s fairy-tale is for an ensemble rich in keyboard instruments and percussion but which, as in Stravinsky’s earlier orchestral work, allots the principal role to flute – its brace of insinuating solos eloquently taken here by Marie-Christine Zupancic. As it now stands, Magnus Lindberg’s Aldeburgh Trilogy is his biggest undertaking for chamber orchestra: the coruscating textures of ‘Bubo Bubo’ (2002) and the more methodical interplay of ‘Counter Phrases’ (2003) now being rounded off by the aptly-named ‘Red House’ (2013) which, at around the combined length of its predecessors, takes up ideas from both pieces and transforms them along the lines of the composer’s recent music – chorale-like gestures and euphonious harmonies abounding in this sonorous score.

Framing these, in turn, were pieces by composers whose centenaries fall this year. Britten was represented by incidental music for a radio production of T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone (1939), as arranged by Knussen and Colin Matthews into a 10-minute suite whose six pithy movements range across the extent of the narrative, and which allows Britten a number of artful if not so subtle allusions – notably to the enchanted world of Wagner in ‘Bird Music’. Ending the concert was Jeux vénitiens (1961) – the first of Lutosławski’s works to meet head-on the challenge of music emanating from the Darmstadt school (though it was his hearing of Cage that provided an immediate catalyst), resulting in a ‘chamber symphony’ whose quicksilver scherzo and taciturn slow movement (with alluring arabesques for flute and harp) enclosed by an opening alternation of energy and stasis, then a finale that draws woodwind, brass and strings into a heated confrontation that is capped by the explosive arrival of percussion and rounded off by a typically ethereal coda.

Throughout the evening, the players of BCMG responded with alacrity to Knussen’s undemonstrative direction. Few conductors would have the foresight to devise such a programme in the knowledge it would cohere so well in practice: fewer would bring it off with a conviction to confirm that any perceived stylistic disparities were of little consequence.

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