Aldeburgh Festival

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (June 8 and 9) at the Maltings, Snape.

Perhaps being tucked away late at night on the opening evening of this year's Aldeburgh Festival was a tactful slot for the world premiere of Emily Howard's one-act chamber opera To See the Invisible.
The premise is a thought-provoking one, someone accused by the state for the heinous crime of "coldness" and condemned to a year of invisibility, during which no-one is allowed to acknowledge him. At first the subject is exhilarated at the freedom this anonymity affords him, but eventually subsides into despair as familiar interactions are denied him. 
Unfortunately long before the 80 minutes of this offering were up, many listeners had subsided into despair as well, dismayed at the repetitiously static pacing of music, text (Selma Dmitrijevic out of Robert Silverberg's short story) and visual presentation (neat designs, but ill-judged lighting obscuring the necessary surtitles).
Howard's score relies on shock tactics which soon lose their effect, despite the reliable dedication of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group directed by the equally dedicated Richard Baker. Objets trouves (an Elizabethan lute-song, a predictable Soave Sia il Vento from Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte) only serve to underline the thinness of this score, the whole of which seems depressingly dated.
The singers were heroic, though I do fear for the future of Anna Dennis's vocal cords after the thoughtless pounding to the extremes of register to which Howard subjects her.
Sandwiching this huge disappointment were two exhilarating programmes from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson, resident artist for the opening weekend, both neatly attuned to the Festival's theme of Britten, Bernstein and America.
We relished powerfully-driven concertante works for piano and orchestra (Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" Symphony, Cedric Tiberghien florid in its extended jazzy sections, backed by a funky slap-bass, Britten's unfairly-neglected Diversions, Pavel Kolnesnikov's left hand scurrying around and drawing riches from the keyboard), and admired the premiere of Colin Matthews' orchestration of Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Robert Murray the eloquent tenor soloist.
These magical scorings revealed the Italianate subtext of Britten's settings, from full-blown Puccini to hedonistic Neapolitan song. And Wilson also presided over two extraordinarily vivid accounts of Britten alone with the orchestra, delivered here by an orchestra and conductor who are smilingly proud of the bond between them. The Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes cast an almost palpable atmosphere, and the Sinfonia da Requiem was simply the most grindingly powerful and ultimately consolatory I have ever heard.
Christopher Morley

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