Classical music: Even Britten could be a brute

CARNIVAL NIGHT ALDEBURGH FESTIVAL
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The Independent Culture
LAST SATURDAY night's Aldeburgh Festival concert from the Snape Maltings Hall was a "Carnival Night". No funny hats, fireworks or audience participation - that happened the following morning on Aldeburgh beach, when hundreds of people turned up to see Stephen Montague, perched precariously on the top of a bulldozer, conducting vintage cars, radios, brass bands, children banging cans and pebbles (and good therapeutic fun it was, too). This was a 20th-century orchestra concert, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra devised and conducted by festival director Oliver Knussen.

It was a strange mix, and not all of it came off. Benjamin Britten's Canadian Carnival is plainly the work of a clever young composer, but it's hack work all the same. By the final section, based on the familiar old French tune "Alouette", Britten sounds thoroughly fed up with the whole business - crude, wrong-note interjections and an almost brutal final climax. We've heard it, thank you; the best thing now is to put it back in the drawer and forget it.

Canadian Carnival had the effect, retrospectively, of making Aaron Copland's El salon Mexico seem even more brilliant and atmospheric than it is - if that's possible. Knussen and the BBCSO gave it the exhilarating, colourful performance it deserves. They did the same with Knussen's own "Flourish with Fireworks" - a witty, lively, superbly orchestrated little piece that reveals more the more one hears it. What a shame that Knussen has not been able to write more.

The Carnival also included two works by the 52-year-old American composer Peter Lieberson - or not quite two. We heard only the first movement of Lieberson's Piano Concerto No 1, but that is substantial enough to add up to a work in its own right. The concerto is based on ideas of "Earth", "Man" and "Heaven". We heard only "Earth" - a dense, forceful drama, suggestive of volcanic eruptions, with (as the composer admitted) a good deal of Stravinsky and Brahms in its make-up. As a sustained onslaught it was simply too much.

Stephen Johnson

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