The 2011 Aldeburgh Festival got off to an ear-shattering start with the woodwind, brass and metallic percussion of the CBSO, under the baton of its former chief conductor Simon Rattle, unleashing Messiaen's 1964 Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum on a packed Snape Maltings. The noise was indeed enough to waken the dead (and to provoke high-pitched singing noises in several hearing aids throughout the hall), and the metaphorical rafters of the Maltings were duly shaken.
Messiaen's own commentary on the instrumentation of the piece was that it was'intended for vast spaces: churches, cathedrals and even performances in the open air'. This hardly corresponds to the resonant acoustic of Snape, and the dynamics of the piece were simply too big for the hall: the sound was gloriously rich, sonorous, impressive, gargantuan even, but the dynamic contrasts went for nothing and it was at times hard to hear the overlaid textures of this devout work. It was carefully and beautifully played, and as the echoes died away there was a feeling of enormity in the air: and as a Festival fanfare, it was unusual to say the least. But in sheer musical appreciation terms, it was a miscalculation.
The real meat of the evening came in the second half, with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. In a clever and communicative move, Rattle had warned his audience even before the Messiaen began that his wife Magdalena Kozena was suffering, and might have to be replaced even halfway through the Mahler by a valiant Jane Irwin, who had driven to Snape all the way from Preston to be on hand, just in case… In the event, Kozena sang her three songs - beautifully - and Irwin did not need to appear. But it was probably a fairly close call.
Rattle gave some iconic performances of Mahler when he was in Birmingham (and made some wonderful recordings with the orchestra), and the magic remains to this day. The orchestral playing in this Lied von der Erde was fabulous: huge, full-blooded sound in the big climaxes; tender, subtly-articulated orchestral detail in the quieter moments. Tenor Michael Schade made more of a singing impression in his opening 'Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde' than many a bigger-voiced tenor I have heard in the past, but it is a fiendish song to sing, the sheer volume of orchestral sound always threatening to overwhelm the solitary singer surrounded by such huge instrumental forces. 'Von der Jugend' and 'Der Trunkene im Fruhling' are both more singer-friendly, and Schade attacked them cleanly and with energy: he was particularly successful in the latter. Rattle did all he could to support his singer, keeping the dynamic light and well-balanced, but even so one feels for any tenor by the end of this particular cycle, and Schade was no exception. His voice, when it soared over the orchestral sound beneath, is a lovely instrument. Schade makes a clean, open sound, often with a real tenor ring to it: his recent Aschenbach at the Hamburg State Opera must have been quite something.
But if Rattle was considerate (mostly) towards his tenor, he really nursed Kozena along the path to one of Mahler's most demanding songs, 'Der Abschied'. She responded with a magnificent, dramatic singing performance that at times almost touched the heights - only once or twice, in the lower register, were we reminded that she really was, undoubtedly suffering for her art. The little catch in the voice at 'Die Welt schlaft ein' was one such moment.
Kozena has an extraordinarily intense voice, a facility for colouring the notes she sings with real dramatic expression, and both in 'Der Einsame im Herbst' and in 'Von der Schonheit' she showed us just why she is such a good performer onstage. But it was in 'Der Abschied' that she really came into her own, spinning a remarkable melodic line that must have called for incredibly clever - or brave - breath control, given her indisposition. The result was wonderful. I have often heard much deeper, fuller, more resonant contraltos sing Das Lied von der Erde, and it was of course in this cycle that Kathleen Ferrier gave one of her most moving and memorable live performances, but Kozena brought something different: a lighter, brighter, more dramatic interpretation that only subsided into darker-toned resignation and acceptance of inevitable death in the closing bars. 'Ewig…ewig…'; Can there be a more elegiac, moving end to an orchestral song cycle than the extraordinary passage that accompanies these repeated words (and a passage that utterly thrilled Benjamin Britten when he first heard it)?
So, a concert of two halves. By the end, a beautifully-judged triumph in the Mahler - and what would I not give to hear Kozena sing it again, in peak condition! At the interval, gratitude for being able to hear a consummate performance of the Messiaen, coupled with relief that the ears had a few minutes to recover. The Aldeburgh Festival is under way once again!
Photo: Simon Rattle and Magdalena Kozena