Scherzo à la Russe [1945 orchestral version]
Variations: Aldous Huxley in memoriam
Conversations [world premiere]*
Caught in Treetops*
Petrushka [1947 version]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) & Colin Currie (percussion)
Alexandra Wood (violin)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group*
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Rian Evans
Reviewed: 26 June, 2011
Venue: Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
Elliott Carter was already approaching his 40th-birthday when, in 1948, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears established the Aldeburgh Festival. That the apparently indefatigable Carter could, at the age of 102, produce his new piece, Conversations, featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the festival’s current artistic director in this world-premiere performance, seemed altogether extraordinary, not to say miraculous.
Conversations is a double concerto in which the pianist shares the limelight with a percussionist – the brilliant Colin Currie – and, although lasting only seven minutes, it felt tautly argued rather than short, the whole working having a vibrant presence and certainly more than enough concertante exuberance to fulfil the description. Carter strikes a fine balance with each of his solo instruments: the piano is technically a percussion instrument and one was reminded of this when tuned percussion – notably marimba – came to the fore; but when heard against the array of untuned percussion, the piano’s melodic and harmonic richness was subtly underlined. This mutual complementing and capitalising on the soloistic capabilities made for an animated conversation with some flamboyant effects, but moments of reflection too. Meanwhile the interjections of the accompanying ensemble – players from BCMG – were precisely judged by Oliver Knussen. For the record, neither solo instrument has the last word: as pianist Aimard struck a resonant final note down in the bass, Currie struck a resounding tinkle on a tiny cymbal, but the understated theatricality of the gesture successfully stole the piano’s thunder.
Helen Grime’s Everyone Sang was written in celebration of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s 75th-birthday in 2010. On a Sunday afternoon in Snape, it was a rather singular conceit to be hearing a piece which makes audible reference to Sunday Morning, one of Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, set on the same Suffolk coast a stone’s throw away. In keeping with Grime’s choice of title – taken from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem in which the uplifting sensation of singing is likened to the flight a bird liberated from captivity – the music’s mood is elevated but with implications of melancholy threaded through. It was all carefully controlled, as was the composer’s handling of orchestral colour.
The title of Charlotte Bray’s Caught in Treetops also has a poetic source – Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet A Match with the Moon – but, like Carter’s Conversations, takes the form of a concerto, in this case for violin and chamber ensemble. Opening with a fierce and dramatic cadenza, there could be no doubts about the nature of the violin’s engagement with the group, forthright and assertive, though not obviously combative, with this emphatic statement of intent inviting a richly affirmative surge of sound. Parameters now established, the violin sought to confer and relate to various instruments, with some intriguing textures created. The assured way in which Bray accomplished this was indeed impressive and Alexandra Wood’s delivery had an equal assurance and poise. Ultimately, the musical substance didn’t seem to match up – at 17 minutes it felt as if the material had been eked out for just too long – but the elegantly transparent final section was evocative and a suitable complement to the arresting beginning.
The three works by Stravinsky were interleaved with the ultra-new pieces to complete an excellent concert. With Stravinsky’s Variations and the Carter both given two performances, it was also a long one; yet, with the CBSO on stunning form and Oliver Knussen conducting with his customary incisiveness and sensibilities, it was most memorable.