British composers did unusually well in the Honours List the other week, with knighthoods for James MacMillan and Karl Jenkins and a CBE for Mark Anthony Turnage – though you might wonder why Turnage got the lesser prize. But it was also a good week for composers at the Aldeburgh Festival, which opened with two intense chamber operas by Harrison Birtwistle (one of them a world premiere), and then delivered a new orchestral song cycle by Tom Coult – a young unknown but destined for success if he continues to write music of such quality.
The Birtwistle operas were the biggest deal at Aldeburgh, and they both revisited the world of ancient myth that has dominated the composer’s stage works near-obsessively throughout his career.
The Corridor, written in 2009, homes in on the moment when Orpheus looks back and loses Euridice to Hades. The new piece, called The Cure, uses the lesser-known story of Jason’s aged father Aeson, who is restored to youth by Medea. What connects the two is that they concern attempts to rescue people from the jaws of death. People who, as re-imagined by the librettist and poet David Harsent, aren’t so happy as you’d think to get a second chance at living.
Both works are for just two singers and six instrumentalists sharing the stage. Here, they played in the intimate Britten Studio, which forms part of Aldeburgh’s Snape Maltings complex. And what immediately impressed was their pleasing, purposeful economy – as music (with scores where, uncharacteristically for Birtwistle, every note seemed to count), and as theatre (with beguilingly simple but stylish design by Alison Chitty and searing performances by the singers Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore).
That The Cure required Padmore to play alternating roles in ever-changing wigs as one of his characters got ever younger, unintentionally edged the performance close to farce. But seriousness won through – with the added poignancy that these works about lost wives, death and ageing had been composed by a widower now in his eighties.
By contrast, the youthful Tom Coult scored a vibrant triumph with his Beautiful Caged Thing, a song sequence based on texts from Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Premiered at Snape Maltings by soprano Claire Booth and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under George Benjamin (who is “in residence” at Aldeburgh this year and also happens to be Coult’s teacher), it was music of opulent but disciplined allure that promised much for the future. In fact, it made for one of those classic first encounters that feels as if one is in at the beginning of something truly significant. Time will tell, but I’m hopeful.