Darkness on the edge of town

In the Shadow of the Night, Philharmonia, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 21 The title given to this concert related to the second piece - Harrison Birtwhistle's Night's Black Bird, composed in 2004.

In the Shadow of the Night, Philharmonia, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 21

The title given to this concert related to the second piece - Harrison Birtwhistle's Night's Black Bird, composed in 2004. The title comes from John Dowland's song 'Flow my tears - where night's black bird her sad infamy sings' and the composer makes a feature of the rising and falling semitones at the beginning of another Dowland song - 'In darkness let me dwell'. Birtwhistle's talent and inventiveness at sound creation is well established and he does not disappoint here. An all-pervading darkness envelopes much of the music and the bird calls when they come are sometimes startling. Yet it is wholly convincing - the depths of night in the depths of the country are indeed like this.

A total contrast began the programme, Schumann's gloriously confident and extrovert Conzertstuck for four horns. The superb swagger of the opening bars was brilliantly executed and listener's spirits soared.

The second half also offered two contrasting works, the first being Frank Bridge's There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook, the title referring to the death of Ophelia in Hamlet. Bridge uses his relatively small forces - single woodwind except for a second clarinet, harp and strings - with great imagination and skill, the harp chords in particular suggesting the watery depths which claimed the girl.

Bartok's suite The Miraculous Mandarin, drawn from the ballet (strictly pantomime) shows the composer at his most extrovert. Notwithstanding the grim story of a young prostitute and her harrowing life Bartok creates a score full of exotic sounds and erotic tension. Thudding percussion and vigorous syncopation underline the increasing sexual abandon and violence as the score races to its thrilling conclusion.

The orchestra played superbly for Oliver Knussen who demonstrated magisterial control throughout. A totally absorbing and satisfying evening.

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Gareth Jones

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