A magnificent firebird

CBSO/Jonathan Nott, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival, June 19.

For the past decade Jonathan Nott has been principal conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra where he has had the time and resources to build a technique and a repertoire on the most secure of foundations. Here was an opportunity to see him with one of Britain’s best regional orchestras in one of the 20th century’s most celebrated orchestral showpieces.

But before that, some harder work. Both e.e. cummings and Pierre Boulez are respected and significant figures in their fields but neither are easily accessible. A combination of the two was always likely to prove challenging and Boulez’s cummings ist der dichter did not disappoint. The singers of Exaudi held their dissonances securely and the wash of instrumental sound did occasionally blend into the vocal line to create an arresting moment of real beauty – a momentary view or a ray of sun illuminating a cloudy, lofty terrain. However, deeper satisfaction proved elusive and things were no easier second time round.

George Benjamin’s ‘Palimpsests’ was more enjoyable. The name derives from archaeology and implies writing on top of pre-existing material or, to use the composers own words ‘… to present numerous, divergent types of music simultaneously’. Certainly there was a sense of bustling excitement as strings scrabbled around against a more static background and the warm applause for the composer clearly acknowledged his orchestral understanding and creative integrity.

And so to Stravinsky. His four Etudes for Orchestra were an ideal hors d’oeuvre, short, sharp and spicy, the opening dance particularly memorable with its repeated figure and discordant drone.

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The performance of The Firebird suite was magnificent. The opening had a heavy menace – all rustling lower strings and the sensitive playing allowed Stravinsky’s astonishingly vivid orchestration to be heard in all its glory. The wind solos were superb and Knott set a thrilling pace and tension in the Infernal Dance. The rapport and respect between conductor and orchestra was fully evident and it is surely only a matter of (a short) time before a major British orchestra comes calling. Look out for his appearance at the Proms on August 2nd.

Gareth Jones

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