Review: Aldeburgh Festival’s Illuminations and Les Siecles, Snape, June 12-13

Les Siecles who perform at this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Photo: A Klostermann

Les Siecles who perform at this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Photo: A Klostermann - Credit: Archant

The 69th Aldeburgh Festival opened with Illuminations, the world premiere of an Aldeburgh commission bringing together music and contemporary circus performance.

Illuminations, soprano Sarah Tynan and nine circus performers opened this year's festival

Illuminations, soprano Sarah Tynan and nine circus performers opened this year's festival - Credit: Archant

Britten’s precocious setting of Rimbaud’s often sensuous and ecstatic verse provided the climax to the evening, when soprano Sarah Tynan rose from her sleep and dreams and delivered a masterly account of the song-cycle.

She was strong and clear in voice and full of subtleties and inflections that conveyed the deeper meanings of the words.

Struan Leslie, Gary McCann and Chris Davey, director, set and costume designer and lighting director respectively and all performers combined their diverse talents to produce 75 minutes of arresting and sometimes breathtaking activity.

Tynan’s bed, set high in an urban landscape, posed interesting challenges for her night visitors but the international circus performers were more than equal to the task. The early appearance of an engaging clown with a smart line in juggling to the strains of Britten’s Young Apollo gave the evening a confident launch on which the high wire performers built a series of gripping and perfectly executed manoeuvres.

There was an excellent rendering of Britten’s Reveille for violin and piano. Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra, rightly praised for their wide creative horizons, provided perfectly nuanced music but were so much more than accompanists – rather, genuine artistic collaborators as they moved around the stage, in and out of the action. This was surely an original and successful way in which to open the festival and Sunday’s performance was enthusiastically received by a large audience which had a significant younger element – all very promising for future audiences.

Saturday evening saw the first of three concerts by Les Siecles, conducted by its founder in 2003, Francois-Xavier Roth.

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The orchestra performs on both modern and period instruments, often in the same concert; which allows considerable freedom in programme planning, as was evident in the choice of music by Rameau and Ravel.

The musical titles may have had strong similarities but each composer took a markedly different approach and it made for a fascinating evening’s listening.

Rameau’s Daphnis et Egle is a one-act work from 1753 and the music is mostly based on baroque dances, but written with considerable skill and invention. Period instruments were used and immediately one sensed the rustic vigour and authenticity of the playing, particularly the rhythmic vitality.

The sarabande was stately, yet elegant, the gigue springy and the tambour numbers full of the joys of life and living. Roth and his players were perfectly in tune - in all senses - and it was good to hear this significant, though somewhat under-performed, composer.

Daphnis and Chloe was written for, and first performed by, the celebrated Ballet Russes of Diaghilev and Fokine.

In the ballet Ravel uses a large orchestra, including a wind machine, and brings together all his celebrated skills as an orchestrator to produce some of the most luscious and thrilling sounds in the whole of music.

It might be argued the full ballet as a concert piece is a little long and has its repetitions but the high points are certainly overwhelming.

The opening passage was mesmerising, the tension palpable as the instruments gently ushered in the dawn. The playing was supremely sensitive and gently phrased and the build up to the first climax so carefully controlled it still came as something of a surprise.

The ear was continually ravished by one instrument after another, the flute perhaps primus inter pares, but excellence was all around. Then a soft drum heralded the start of the final, ecstatic dance.

Under the conductor’s precise beat the volume and intensity grew and grew to an almost unbearable degree until, with a sudden crash, it was all over and an explosion of delight ripped through the hall.

The ovation was fully deserved - Roth and his outstanding players had certainly given us an evening to remember.

Gareth Jones