If you are ever lucky enough to be a guest at the Salzburg Festival, you would not let slip that you weren’t a fan of Mozart; or Wagner at Bayreuth.
So while at the Aldeburgh Music Festival, which I have attended for the last few years, I have kept my mouth firmly zipped on site that I am not a great lover of the music of Benjamin Britten (1913-76). It would be an act of heresy, risking immediate expulsion and a ban to return for life. Some readers will be aghast at such an admission, about one of this country’s most gifted composers, and the man who set up the festival seventy years ago with the musician and his life-long partner, Peter Pears, seen below on the right with Britten.
From a modest start in Aldeburgh, its popularity grew to require larger premises and hence its move to Snape Maltings. The accoustic in the 832 seat concert hall is extraordinary.
We listened to a violin concerto in the first half of one concert without knowing whose it was, having left the programme in the bar. There were, in my view, isolated moments of real beauty, but not frequent enough for me to really want to listen to it again – which, I admit, is exactly what I would encourage you to do if you didn’t like one of my posts.
During the interval I tentatively asked what we’d just heard, to be informed that it was the Britten Violin Concerto.
Right, I thought, I’m really glad I hadn’t known that in advance, because I’d have made up my mind that I wasn’t going to listen to it properly. But I did; and when I learnt of its identity, my reaction was that I’m glad to have been made to hear it without knowing the composer, ticked that box, and no need to seek it out again. A view I still hold.
I’ve probably lost a few of you in disgust already. How lazy. How short-sighted. But is it really any different to ditching a book half way through if it hasn’t got hold of you by then?
And yet maybe that’s one approach when listening to a piece for the first time: give it your full attention without knowing the composer, and find yourself less biased and more curious. Then see if you want to hear it again, or, better still, seek out other works by the same hand.
(The second half of the concert, incidentally, was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, whose popularity since its very first performance has caused it to be so overplayed that I would never actively seek it out. He wrote eight others, only a handful of which get a decent airing. It was so brilliantly played, however, that, much to my annoyance, I have been humming excerpts from it ever since. A different result for my prejudiced thinking. Serves me right, I know. And if you haven’t heard the piece, which includes the backing for a famous bread brand advertisement, I would encourage you to ignore my temporary boredom with it and listen to it.)
The difficulty I have with Britten is that he couldn’t stand the music of Verdi (seriously?), Brahms, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But his output was prolific, and his 16 operas redefined English opera. I know there are plenty of exceptions, it’s just that I find much of his music to be so – how can I put it? – bloody miserable!
I am an impatient listener, but when I hear a work I do not like, I am convinced it is my fault. Not my words, but Britten’s, and that must be my admission henceforth. I’m conscious that this post is almost in breach of my mission to share pieces with you that I enjoy, and I’ve hardly bigged up Britten here – but here is one of those exceptions.
On the final day of the festival, we attended a recital given by the bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel. What a way to finish that was. Amongst his songs was this setting by Britten of the folksong Foggy, Foggy Dew. As an example of a major work, it is not; but it is a rare moment of fun, especially in the hands of Terfel and his gifted accompanist, Malcom Martineau. The story is brilliantly told by both of them. Click below image.
We were treated to two encores. And here comes a gripe. The first was a humorous one about a dragon. After he’d finished it, with applause still strong, there were people all over this very open hall bolting for the exits to make a head start from the car parks. Can you imagine how awful that looks from the stage? And can you imagine missing this, one of Schubert’s most beautiful songs, Allerseelen, written for the Feast of All Souls? Serves them right, I say.
The last line was sung even more quietly than it is here, almost a whisper, and we heard every word. What a gem. Click again-