Review: Britten, Bernstein & America, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 8

John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra which is performing at Snape as part of the Alde

John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra which is performing at Snape as part of the Aldeburgh festival 2018 Photo: BBC John Wood - Credit: Archant

This opening concert was a good example of what the Aldeburgh Festival does so well - nothing easy or mainstream nor too recherché, but four significant and varied compositions, all originally composed within a ten year period (1939-49), making a coherent and stimulating programme.

The Sinfonia da Requiem, Britten’s nearest approach to an orchestral symphony, was written in 1940 and in memory of the composer’s parents; both factors doubtless contribute to the power and intensity of the work. Under the inspired baton of conductor John Wilson, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra delivered a charged and emotional reading. From the violent opening drumbeats the tension never relaxed and brass and woodwind rang out crisp and clear.

Later in the same year Britten composed the first set of songs written specifically for Peter Pears, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Originally written with piano accompaniment they were orchestrated by Colin Matthews as a Festival Commission and here given their world premiere. As might be expected from an established composer who knew Britten so well the new arrangements are perfectly suited to the music and add subtle and delightful touches. Robert Murray’s ardent tones effortlessly reached every corner, his performance of the breathless S’un Casto Amor particularly striking.

Copland’s ‘Quiet City’ of 1939 begins most evocatively on hushed strings, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s ‘Early Sunday Morning’ painting. The City gradually came to life, propelled by Mark O’Keefe’s characterful trumpet and retired to the poise and precision of James Horan’s immaculate cor anglais.

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth has been marked by a renewed interest in a man of many and substantial talents. Even if he failed to fulfil all his initial promise he nevertheless left a significant legacy including the second symphony with an important part for solo piano. It has some dazzlingly energetic and inventive movements, notably The Masque which had the performers and audience on the edge of their seats in a thrilling white-knuckle ride, pianist Cedric Tiberghien absolutely in the groove. The orchestra relished the adventurous writing and Wilson brought the symphony and the evening to a rousing conclusion.

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Gareth Jones

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