Aldeburgh Festival: Works by Bach, Benjamin, Berio, Boulez

Jones, Shave, Britten Sinfonia/Aimard

Snape Maltings, 17 June 2010 2.5 stars

AimardMore eclectic programming from Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Aldeburgh Festival. In this opening orchestral concert he was soloist and conductor in JS Bach's keyboard concerto in D minor and keyboard soloist in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which took the first half of the concert. He then returned as conductor for several works which clearly interested him much more: two Bach transcriptions by Benjamin and by Berio respectively, then Derive I by Boulez and finally an early work for orchestra by Benjamin, At First Light, composed in 1982 for Simon Rattle and the London Sinfonietta.

Not quite a Collage/Montage then, but still a rather strange musical journey, the sonorities of Boulez and Benjamin at the end of the evening having no discernible derivation from the Bach that began the evening. In the well-known keyboard concerto in D minor, Aimard set a lively pace and the Britten Sinfonia were on their mettle to keep up with him. I normally like Aimard's Bach playing but in this work he lacked tonal refinement and his normally sure touch deserted him at times. It was hard-driven stuff, lacking light and shade, producing big splurges of Steinway sound with orchestral playing to match. There were no real mishaps but the ensemble threatened to go off the rails several times.

The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was better because there was much more light and shade in the interplay between the solo violin (an excellent Jacqueline Shave), flute (Karen Jones, playing eloquently but sounding slightly underpowered at times) and keyboard. Once again Aimard threatened to go off into territory all of his own in the astonishing keyboard cadenza at the end of the first movement, but the trio of soloists kept together and gave a spirited account of the work, albeit a bit too forceful for my own taste in Bach ensemble pieces. The last movement in particular called for digital dexterity and got it but at the expense of musical line, which was not really allowed to breathe.

The two Bach transcriptions from The Art of Fugue that started the second half were interesting in their different ways, Benjamin going for pizzicato, rhythmical effects in a canon and fugue, with Berio producing a much softer, lusher and opulent orchestration of Contrapunctus XIX, and finishing with chordal clusters of sound on the (German) notes B-A-C-H. Both short works were sensitively played. Stops were then pulled out for the much freer, wilder and atonal Boulez piece, which I confess to finding uninteresting. The music consists of fragments that Boulez had decided to omit from his 1981 work Repons, and although the programme notes lauded the virtues of recycling music in this way, the work in performance seemed shapeless and the instrumental effects somewhat trite. The Benjamin piece that followed (written two years earlier than the Boulez, in 1982) at least had shape and structure, and a clear driving force, and the 14 members of the Britten Sinfonia played it with considerable panache. But it was a quirky way to end an evening that had started in the comforting harmonies (if not sonorities) of the eighteenth century, and only really made programming sense in the much wider context of the Aldeburgh Festival as a whole.

By Mike Reynolds

Photo: Pierre-Laurent Aimard

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