The five performances of Peter Grimes at the heart of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival (two in concert, three on the beach) may have overshadowed some of the other musical offerings, but Britten’s versatility as a composer was illustrated in different ways as the Festival drew to a close. Of huge interest was an evening called Britten Dances, given by the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet Flanders, and using not the music Britten wrote for The Prince of the Pagodas but rather his Young Apollo of 1939, his arrangement of a Purcell Chaconne (1948) and, most substantially, his Variations on a theme by Frank Bridge: and to this fascinating mix was added a new work of 2013 by Larry Goves, called Dream Weaver (Nocturnal and Diversions) and described as “after Britten”.
Choreographer for If Memory Serves and for Courting the Senses, set to Young Apollo and the Purcell Chaconne respectively, was Ashley Page, and he created two contrasting works of sustained narrative interest and great fluidity, danced beautifully by soloists of the Royal Ballet Flanders. The G minor Chaconne is all of a piece, with a single mood and moments of quiet resignation and repose: not so Young Apollo, with its wonderful piano riffs, suggestive of waves on the shore, which gave the dancers ample scope to suggest sensuality, changes of mood and the play of contrasts that is inherent in the music. The same company danced Dream Weaver choreographed by Cameron McMillan: this was interesting but less successful, the music failing to ignite the senses and becoming, after a while, somewhat repetitive: it drew however to a beautiful close with a setting of a nocturnal after John Dowland, played with great sensitivity on the guitar by Tom McKinney. Once again, the Royal Ballet Flanders danced with flair, precision and expressivity.
The last choreographer, Kim Brandstrup, created in a world premiere performance by the Royal Ballet a witty, spirited and beautifully imagined Ceremony of Innocence to Britten’s Frank Bridge variations. And how astonishingly danceable this music is: the succession of short movements produce waltz sequence after waltz sequence, interspersed with the 24 year old Britten’s virtuoso reworkings of a simple theme that sounds fresh and inviting each time it reappears. With some highly imaginative shadow play and video projection on the bare rear wall of Snape Maltings, the work was a delight to watch and to hear – and all the ballet experience of Barry Wordsworth came to bear on the orchestra, which played with wit and spirit. The Royal Ballet was in fine fettle, dancing with flair and precision, and rounded off a highly invigorating evening.
Two days later, in a warm-up for the very last evening concert of the Festival, Sir Mark Elder stood in front of 800 parents and children in Snape Maltings and gave a short explanation of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide and of the assembled Hallé Orchestra’s history and qualities. Giving then a brief glimpse of the sound world of a full symphony orchestra, Elder conducted a single dance movement from The Prince of the Pagodas, the Pas de Six, and then invited as many children as wanted – and very many did – to come onstage and sit at the feet of his orchestra as they played Britten’s 1945 iconic variations on a theme by Purcell. The work was given with its spoken narration and was played as warmly, deftly and excitingly as befitted the occasion. This was an inspiring concert, with children aged between 4 and 10 as close to the amazing sound world of a world class orchestra as they are ever likely to be – unless they enter the profession! Britten, with his lifelong interest in the musical talents and receptivities of children, would have applauded as warmly as the capacity house did. This was a great half hour concert for the young, and an inspiring interlude among the Festival’s final day’s events.