How plural a thing is joy


Review of 2010 Aldeburgh Festival from the Times Literary Supplement, 16 July

Pierre Boulez came to Aldeburgh this year. Not long ago, such a visit would have been unthinkable. Benjamin Britten (who remains the festival’s guiding spirit regardless of how little of his music features in it) was poles apart from Boulez in both artistic and political terms. They didn’t so much consider each other’s music beneath contempt as not consider it at all. But in recent years, the polarization of contemporary music – between, broadly speaking, a Boulez-aligned progressive element and everything else – has yielded to a stylistic and aesthetic pluralism. This is not to say that musicians aren’t still capable of politicizing their listening, or of being made angry by a composer’s perceived “selling out”. It is simply that the idea of artistic progress has moved far beyond its once narrowly policed borders, just as the idea of the past – an awareness of which is always keenest in those most anxious to leave it behind – has relaxed its grip on the present.

The ground for the master’s visit had been well laid by the recent appointment of a former Boulez protégé, the pianist Pierre- Laurent Aimard, as the festival’s director. Now in his second year at Aldeburgh, Aimard has confirmed the international direction in which the festival has long been travelling. He has also succeeded in furthering Britten’s own contextualizing aims, presenting contemporary works alongside older music. Few things have been more harmful to the reputation of contemporary music – and its appreciation - than its persistent insularity.

The first day of the festival’s final weekend began with an informal interview and concert – in which members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain performed Boulez’s Incises and the early Sonatina for flute and piano – and ended with a period-instrument performance of Bach’s B minor mass, John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in a seamless interpretation which left authenticity purists and sceptics alike gaping in bewilderment. The next day, in a recital by Aimard and the German violinist Thomas Zehetmair, Boulez’s beautiful solo violin piece, “Anthèmes 1”, rubbed shoulders with Schoenberg, Schumann and Mozart; the 800-seat concert hall was full on a glorious Suffolk summer morning. In the afternoon a Swiss vocal group sang obscure sixteenth-century polyphony by Thomas Ashewell and Nicolas Gombert while the evening brought Boulez to the podium to conduct Varèse, Ligeti, Carter, as well as his own “Dérives 2”. Both concerts were packed to the gunnels.

One can never be prepared for someone like Boulez. His identity seems entirely bound up with the paradox, implicit in the idea of artistic originality, of necessity as the flipside of novelty. The aim to wrong-foot his listener – the unswerving article of faith at the heart of his music – is equally evident in his conversation. “I have a great love of accident”, he explained, by way of elucidating his method of building new works. But later, while discussing his attitude to conducting, and in particular his decision to conduct the Ring at Bayreuth in 1966 (a move which shocked his former Darmstadt colleagues at the time), the pendulum swung back: “I simply conduct the music I feel it is necessary to hear . . . I perform what is necessary”. It was perhaps mildly disappointing that the programme Boulez felt “must be heard” on this occasion had so little to connect it to its English setting. Both he and the Ensemble Intercontemporain have worked with George Benjamin (the festival’s other featured composer) and Jonathan Harvey before, and could easily have included something by either of them in the concert. Still, the disappointment didn’t last long: it was good to hear again the shimmering, monolithic harmonies of “Dérive 2”, building to a pulsating final crescendo, alongside glitteringly fresh performances of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1970) and Elliot Carter’s new settings of five poems by Marianne Moore. Dérive 2 is composed for eleven instruments and based on material discarded from the earlier Répons (pretty much the entirety of Boulez’s oeuvre consists of material reworked from earlier pieces – “like a family tree”, as he puts it). Its kaleidoscopic surface is wrapped around a single six-note chord. Wagnerian in its exploded miniaturism, and audacity of conception, the work is unusual in that its largely periodic structure allows the listener to gain a foothold amid the ripple and swirl of texture and line, before (and this is less unusual) taking it away again. Emboldened by the warm acoustic bounce of Britten’s bare-brick concert hall, it gathers everything into one continuous, implacable stream. In every possible way, the work is immense, the powerful flow of sound difficult to square with the sight of Boulez’s neat form counting away on the rostrum.

Though not completed until 2006, Dérive 2 was originally intended as an eightieth anniversary tribute to Elliot Carter. Now only months shy of his 102nd birthday, Carter is in as good a position as any to compose a work with the title What Are Years?, a setting of five poems by the American modernist poet Marianne Moore. Scored for chamber orchestra, with an array of pitched and unpitched percussion, the limpid instrumental writing provides a sleek bedding for beautifully measured vocal lines which support the wittily skewed angles of Moore’s verse. In both the poems and the music, detail surrenders itself imperceptibly to confrontation with mystery. In the final, title song, a bird is observed “growing taller” in the act of singing. It sits captive between fear and desire but voices the infinite reach of human longing: “satisfaction is a lowly thing, how pure a thing is joy”. The line is carried through a steep crescendo into a resounding chord, amid the decay of which the soprano intones “This is mortality. This is eternity”. Sung with mouthwatering precision and feeling by Claire Booth, Carter’s music seemed as glorious as that of Bach’s mass, heard the night before. Clearly, too, it was “necessary”. Yet couched in a weekend of performances of Boulez’s works, the brief Carter interlude also served as a reminder of the key differences between the European and North American experiences of modernity. The former’s heavy gaze on the imploded certainties of history is shot through with barely concealed agonies, whereas the latter is often suffused with quiet delight, as if the Moderns’ great crisis of subjectivity might, and should, be looked on as an opportunity rather than an occasion for terrible doubt.

Something of this contrast was evident in the pairing of two stage works with which the festival opened. The first, by Boulez’s Italian contemporary and fellow Darmstadt alumnus Luciano Berio, is a musical dramatization of a song recital that goes very wrong when the soloist has an emotional breakdown. Originally composed in 1972 for Berio’s wife, the mezzo soprano Cathy Berberian, Recital 1 quotes snatches of vocal music from Monteverdi to Berio himself, through which the soloist works her way as she struggles to reconcile the ritual of giving a recital with the range of emotion expressed in the songs. A consistently unnerving, occasionally taunting orchestral accompaniment picks away at the patchwork of quotation. While ostensibly depicting an individual’s breakdown, the work opens out into a portrayal of music itself undergoing some kind of existential crisis – as if the possibility of expression had been crushed under the rubble of precedent. It can be played, in part, for laughs, and provides an excellent vehicle for any singer brave enough to rise to the extraordinary challenges it presents in performance – in this case, the magnificently versatile Susan Bickley. But it also comes across as a striking rehearsal of the degree-zero reasoning central to the efforts of the postwar generation, epitomized by Boulez and Berio, to rid themselves of the past.

The second work in the double bill was George Benjamin’s slender chamber opera, Into the Little Hill. A pared-down retelling of the Pied Piper legend, the work lasts forty minutes and is scored for an ensemble of fifteen instrumentalists, and a soprano and mezzo- soprano, who between them share out the roles of the town’s minister, his wife and child, the crowd, narrator, and Stranger (the piper). The concision of both the score and Martin Crimp’s libretto is breathtaking, especially so when one tries, and fails, to conceive of a scene or an interpretative strand that could have been added. The crowd scenes (both singers, in subtle, smoothly aligned dissonance) are full of pitiless baying for an end to the rats; the stranger – a man with “no eyes, no nose, no ears” – is given just enough time for a sense of his mystery, power and avarice to assert itself; the full extent of the minister’s agonies of conscience in obeying the will of the people (in order to regain power himself) is clear, as is the hole blasted through the adult narratives by the child’s inability to understand why the rats are any different from her. Musically, neither a note nor a rest is audibly spare.

The source of the stranger’s power, as we know, is music: the piper is a figure of literal and metaphorical enchantment. And the history of opera, from la favola d’Orfeo onwards, is littered with examples of the genre’s most stubborn (and artistically fascinating) dramaturgical problem: how to depict characters singing or playing music when such singing and playing is an aspect of what is doing the depicting. Benjamin and Crimp’s answer is both economical and an artistic masterstroke: silence. The piper’s magical music is no more audible than his narrated actions are visible, and its seductive force is all the more palpable as a result. Scored for a folksy, almost comic ensemble which includes basset horns, a contrabass clarinet and parts for mandolin and banjo, Into the Little Hill is less an opera than a piece of ritualized musical story-telling. At its heart is the dramatic contrast between the compromised reality in which we accept, as the minister puts it, “all faiths because we believe in nothing”, and the realm of unbridled presence accessible only to the innocent children (and rats), who blissfully follow the piper’s Pythagorean strains to the light that blazes under the hill.

In one sense, Into the Little Hill can be understood as a kind of negative gesamtkunstwerk – a total art work that has renounced all totalizing claims. With the aid of John Fuljames’s minimal staging, the work affords a limitless space and time for the imagination through the bewildering beauty of its gestures. Though the audience are left no less bereft than the townsfolk in the story, the work engenders a strong and emboldening perception of one’s own freedom to pull together each phrase, image or utterance. At the same time, it suggests an easier, more honest relation to history than that which dominates the gloomy horizons of Boulez and Berio. The illusions of the past cannot be brought back, or its horrific losses made good, but the structure of our relation to ideas of infinity and perfection remains the same, brought to being neither through enchantment nor disenchantment, but through the effort to create and comprehend beauty.

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