Thursday, 16 June 2011

Beside the Seaside

The 64th Aldeburgh Festival opened last Friday with a bang. Several, actually - many from the gongs and tam tams in Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The second half of this thrilling concert was given over to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with an ailing Magdalena Kozena nevertheless giving a superb performance right down to the closings Ewigs. Such is the variety of the Festival programme, even after this big opening number there will be much more to enjoy over the coming weeks.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology is as essential an accompaniment as the highly-collectable Festival programme book. This remarkable collection of prose, poetry and images of Aldeburgh and the Suffolk coast has, at its heart, the Aldeburgh Festival in Benjamin Britten’s time and beyond. We celebrate both the Festival and the Anthology with excerpts from Steven Isserlis’ contribution to the latter, appropriately titled ‘Aldeburgh: A Magical Festival’:

My first performance at Aldeburgh was as part of a short masterclass seminar given by the distinguished Danish cellist Erling Blondal Bengtsson. I remember playing the Prelude of Bach’s fifth suite at the end-of-course student concert; about ten minutes after I’d finished, Britten arrived. So alas, I just missed my only chance to play to him. I did, however, get to play Bach to Imogen Holst, who was a friend of my teacher, Jane Cowan. As a result of that, I became friends with ‘Imo’ (well, if a rather bumptious teenager and a distinguished eccentric in her late sixties can be called friends), and she invited me to play her lovely piece for solo cello, The Fall of the Leaf, at a concert that marked her seventieth birthday in 1977. (I received my first-ever national review for that, the Telegraph graciously describing me as ‘the talented Roger Isserlis’.) Later, she invited me back to the festival to give the first performance for many years of her father’s only work for cello, Invocation. So my early memories of Aldeburgh are very much bound up with her. I really don’t think that a character like Imo’s could exist now. I remember her speeches to audiences: bending from the waist down, she would inform them, in the sort of voice now heard only in nursery schools, that they were about to have a ‘lovely, lovely time’. They would sit there meekly, putty in her hands.

At the concert in which I played The Fall of the Leaf, Peter Pears sang songs by Quilter and his contemporaries, with Roger Vignoles at the piano. I listened backstage and was bowled over by the performance; when they came offstage, I was ready for them. ‘That’s the best performance I’ve ever heard of British music!’ I gushed. Peter Pears looked at me a little strangely, as well he might; to him, having introduced so many of the greatest works ever written by a British composer, it must have sounded very foolish. Well, it was a silly thing to say; but I was young…

Another striking memory is from 1974, when Rostropovich was finally allowed out of the Soviet Union and was able to give the premiere of Britten’s Third Suite for solo cello, which had been written for him some years earlier. Again, Britten was sitting in the box; I remember thinking how frail he looked – but he was still a strong presence. We knew that we were listening to history in the making. Since then, I have performed that same Suite (the only one of the three that I play) several times at the Maltings; on each occasion, I have glanced towards the darkened box and imagined that Britten’s ghost was sitting there. It is quite an eerie feeling!

As I think of Aldeburgh and Snape, other memories come tumbling into my brain: the sight of Joyce Grenfell striding into a concert, seemingly oblivious to the excitement she was stirring up among her fellow audience members; Peter Pears and Murray Perahia getting to the very heart of Schumann’s Dichterliebe; Olly Knussen’s torso heaving with enjoyment of a somewhat risqué joke, with his co-director Steuart Bedford sitting with cocked head and knitted eyebrows, doing his good-natured best to understand it; my friend the pianist Paul Coker watching with amused concern a temper tantrum of mine backstage including (I’m ashamed to admit) some kicking of a dressing-room wall, when I felt my cello hadn’t been speaking properly during the first half of a recital; my mother attending a Bach recital I gave in the beautiful Blythburgh church, shortly before she died; Stephen Hough being thrilled by the sound of Britten’s piano, kept at the Red House; and so on. Variety has always been a hallmark of the festival and its associated activities, every visit offering a new and different experience.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology, edited by Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie, is available in paperback, hardback and a limited edition. More books on Benjamin Britten, music associated with Aldeburgh and the history of Suffolk may be found here.

Pronunciation note: Aldeburgh almost rhymes with Marlboro rather than Nuremberg.

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