Artists sometimes need to leave home and experience “otherness” to find out who and what they are. And so it was with Benjamin Britten, who left for America in the 1930s, experienced “otherness” with a vengeance (after a sheltered youth in small-town Suffolk), then got homesick and came back: a changed but fully formed composer.
The Aldeburgh Festival has taken that time in America as a theme for its 2018 season, combining it with celebrations for the centenary of Leonard Bernstein, who was Britten’s close contemporary and occasional collaborator.
They were very different people: glamorous and streetwise (Bernstein) versus strait-laced and self-tortured (Britten). But they shared a sort of friendship as outsider figures: gay men in a straight world. And although their music doesn’t tread much common ground, there’s a reciprocal exchange in Britten’s efforts to write lighter cabaret and Broadway music (Bernstein territory) while Bernstein (who was always envious of Britten’s technique) struggled to be “serious” and substantial.
Aldeburgh’s opening concerts this year pitched them head to head, with Bernstein represented by two very earnest scores that are really concertos in disguise: his Age of Anxiety symphony for piano and orchestra, and Halil for flute and orchestra.
Representing Britten’s American output we had the Sinfonia da Requiem and another quasi-concerto, the Diversions for Piano, delivered with unflustered brilliance by the soloist Pavel Kolesnikov who is, I think, the most distinctive of the younger keyboard stars: a captivating personality like no one else, and none the worse for being slightly off the wall.
John Wilson, a conductor better known for his Broadway repertoire, made big, bold although sometimes insecure work of these pieces with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (for someone with a chiselled stick technique who doesn’t so much beat time as poke it, he can be strangely imprecise). And the sheer scale of sound was overwhelming in a new orchestration by Colin Matthews of Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets: a song cycle originally written for voice and piano that to my ear lost its fierce, mercurial bite in this orchestral version. Matthews is a master orchestrator but his reimagining here overlaid the songs with too much weight. They could have been Respighi. And the tenor Robert Murray had a hard time making himself heard.
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