Little acorns and mighty oaks… as the countdown to the 65th Aldeburgh Festival progresses, in the relative calm of 2012 before the storm of Benjamin Britten's music that will resonate all around the world in 2013, the centenary of Britten's birth, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves what this particular festival is all about. Very deliberately it bears the title "Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts” and right from the outset its founders – Peter Pears and Britten – wanted music to be showcased alongside visual and other forms of art. "We are planning three performances of Albert Herring…lectures (including E.M. Forster, Kenneth Clark, Guthrie), exhibitions of modern paintings as well as the local painters Constable and Gainsborough! & Popular concerts, & bus excursions around the district, as well as a Festival Dance!” Britten wrote to Elizabeth Mayer on 4 February 1948. The very first Festival ran from 5 – 13 June 1948 and the programme was indeed eclectic, giving Britten and Pears the sort of Festival 'where one can wander about', in Britten's own words. And right from the outset, new music was played: not only newly or relevantly recently written works by Britten himself ("In these days of universal suffering, I do not see why my large scale musical works should not be played in Suffolk” Britten told an Ipswich audience in December 1947, to laughter) but works by other contemporary composers. Thus the very first concert, in Aldeburgh Paris Church, included not only Britten's 'Saint Nicolas' but also a brand new work by Martin Shaw, 'God's Grandeur', set for chorus and orchestra to a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Fast forward to 2012, to the Festival that this year runs from 8 – 24 June, and the same spirit of experimental and contemporary music making and performing is very much in evidence. Under the overall artistic direction of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Festival's Artist in Residence is Oliver Knussen and a shorter residency (17 – 19 June) is devoted to Helmut Lachenmann, whose music for solo piano will be the subject of masterclasses and a complete retrospective in performance. Knussen's two one act operas based on the books by Maurice Sendak (and with libretti by the author) launch the Festival: Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! are performed in Snape Maltings on 8 and 10 June under the baton of Ryan Wigglesworth, with an attractive looking cast that includes Claire Booth, Susan Bickley, Rebecca Bottone and Graeme Broadbent. And the first weekend starts as the Festival intends to go on: at what other Festival in the UK (or almost anywhere for that matter) could you expect to hear works by Lutoslawski, Ives, Stravinsky, Berg, Takemitsu and Alexander Goehr performed by ensembles that include pianists like Peter Serkin, Menahem Pressler and the strikingly talented Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero (whose speciality is improvisation on themes suggested by her audiences) and a cellist like Miklos Perenyi. All will be in and around Aldeburgh and Snape between 9 and 10 June.
If Britten's works are sparingly performed this year (there are only three programmes that include Britten, although the performance by the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon of the complete film scores together with a screening of the original films will be an undoubted highlight, on 14 June), there is considerably more emphasis on Bartok. Ten separate programmes feature his music, ranging from a re-creation of the piano recital that Bartok himself gave on a visit to Aldeburgh in 1923 (with Scarlatti and Debussy alongside his own works, performed this time by pianist Tamara Stefanovich), through his six string quartets, given over three concerts by the Keller Quartet, to his sonata for two pianos and percussion and his relatively rarely performed string quintet (20 June). Films about Bartok and a talk on his relationship with Britain complete the Festival's multi-media exploration of the great Hungarian composer. And the Hungary theme runs deeper at the Festival this year: in three concerts the masterly and delightfully understated cellist (and cello professor) Miklos Perenyi plays Bach, Kurtag and Ligeti, while on 15 June pianist Dezso Ranki will make his Aldeburgh debut, in a recital including works by Haydn, Liszt and Bartok. Ranki was one of the gifted trio of pianists to emerge from the Liszt Academy in the mid 1970s: I first heard him there in recital in 1974, when I lived in Budapest, and I played with many others the 'spot the future star' game, when we compared Ranki's pianism with that of his two fellow students Zoltan Kocsis and Andras Schiff. All three have gone different ways with their music-making, but all three have made it on the international stage: I can't wait to hear what has become of that precocious talent (whose recitals often featured eight to ten encores!) nearly forty years on…
There are other names and Aldeburgh Festival favourities, in more traditional classical repertoire: Matthias Goerne for one, singing Schumann and Brahms (11 June), Ian Bostridge for another, singing Schubert and Ives (19 June) and the delightful Dawn Upshaw, exploring the world of twentieth century American and French song in a series of masterclasses that run from 18 to 24 June, the last week of the Festival. And the whole programme will end in spectacular fashion on 24 June, when the combined forces of the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra, the Britten Pears Orchestra and Aldeburgh Young Musicians will cram into every inch of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall (and quite a few will probably be in the adjoining rooms and corridors as well!) for a performance – described as "the European premiere of the complete work” – of Ives' Universe Symphony. In the resonant acoustic of the Maltings, the soundscape envisaged by Ives should be quite something.
I have never yet booked up for a complete Aldeburgh Festival, and followed Britten's injunction to "wander about”. There are plenty who do, and despite – or perhaps more accurately, because of – the boldness of the programme planning, audiences hold up remarkably well. Perhaps the 2013 Festival, with its inevitable concentration on the works of the man who established the whole venture, would be the time to take the plunge. Meanwhile 2012 has some fascinating evenings in prospect and opening night, with two works by Knussen, who has been involved in some remarkable music-making at Snape over many years, is a mere ten weeks away. It should get the Festival off to a great start.
More information is available at http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/.