CLASSICAL MUSIC / Floods of interest

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The Independent Culture
INESCAPABLY, the start of every Aldeburgh Festival finds people sitting on the seafront working out how many years it is since Britten died and how his festival is shaping up without him. For the record, it's 18 and going strong. Although its claim on the loyalty of international stars has declined, it still manages to host performances of real significance, and sustains the curious paradox whereby a genteel coastal resort populated by retired air-commodores turns, for two weeks, into a holiday camp for the English contemporary-music establishment.

In fact, the festival feels never more 'authentic' than when everyone assembles in the Jubilee Hall for Aldeburgh's mid-morning Composer Portrait concerts. Last weekend the composer was Bayan Northcott, better known as a writer on music than of it. The pieces played - an oboe sonata,

a sextet, a Purcell 'recomposition', some song settings - were fascinating illustrations of a small, exquisitely crafted oeuvre steeped in erudition (Northcott's Opus 1, the oboe sonata, was written at the age of 39 after a long academic apprenticeship), and sounding as though every pitch, duration and dynamic nuance had been agonised over long and hard. As a result they were a little earnest, but engaging

too, with accomplished performances from the Endymion Ensemble under Stefan Asbury.

On a larger scale, Aldeburgh's theme for 1994 is Britten and Stravinsky: a relationship largely forged by imitation, and not the way round you might expect. To a curious degree, Stravinsky borrowed subjects Britten had already claimed. A prime example is The Flood, the dramatic cantata written for television in 1962, based on the same mystery play Britten used for Noyes Fludde in 1957. It even has God speak with two voices in rhythmic unison, as Britten did 10 years earlier in his canticle Abraham and Isaac.

But if there's any competition, Britten wins hands down - as was obvious from the Flood that Oliver Knussen conducted in the opening concert: a good performance (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra) of a lacklustre score whose technical niceties don't amount to much in the way of shape or substance. You hear the familiar words and remember how much more life and brilliance Britten gives them. The undoubted highlight of the evening, whose preoccupation with death and disaster made a chastening festival first night, was Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. This received a reading that, while not the most polished, was certainly the most exciting and dramatic I've ever heard, building momentum in the central section with a driven urgency that all but took off of its own accord.

Britten and Stravinsky stayed paired in the following night's dance concert, which fitted choreography by Richard Alston to pre-existing scores with an uncommon equality of status (hurrah). My one reservation was that stitching Britten's Prelude and Fugue and Lachrymae together to make a single ballet was like handcuffing a policeman to the Pope: theoretically possible but out of order.

Then there was the English Chamber Orchestra demonstrating that Variation form lies at the heart of English musical consciousness (try as we may, we're not a culture naturally given to large-scale symphonic argument). Apart from Vaughan Williams's Oboe Concerto, played by Nicholas Daniel with a declamatory passion that revealed the poignancy of a score too readily dismissed as decorative, we had all variations. It started with that feeble shop-window for British music of the Fifties, the Variations on Sellenger's Round (six composers, none of them on form), and premiered an orchestral version of Britten's Temporal Variations by Colin Matthews, an experienced animateur of what-ifs in the Britten catalogue who has made a very serviceable score. It led into music by Colin's brother David, the exhilarating Variations on 'Die Nacht ist Kommen', which pays its dues (mostly to Michael Tippett) with disarming candour.

Peri's Euridice is generally acknowledged as the earliest surviving opera, first performed in the Pitti Palace in 1600. But it doesn't survive in regular repertory, so this week's concert perfomance by David Roblou's group Combattimenti was welcome exposure - and nicely done with Mark Tucker in the lead role of Orfeo. As usual in operas on this myth, Euridice has nothing much to do; she has even less here, because Peri omits the business of her second death. So what emerges is a smoothly contoured work of charming modesty and, in at least one instance, (the concluding Scene Two chorus) stunning beauty.

Covent Garden's new Aida has, underneath its surface pomp, a kind of modesty as well. Edward Downes, who conducts, and Elijah Moshinsky, who directs, are masterful manipulators of grandeur without tat; and the way Downes animates the score, with litheness, clarity and ease of movement,

is perfectly matched by the subdued particularity of the staging. There are lots of bodies expensively dressed (or un-dressed - the balletic fighting is a Chippendales spectacular that block- books every bare-chest specialist in Spotlight), but they occupy an empty stage. No pyramids, no sphinxes. Not, in fact, much Egyptology at all, because this is a staging that regards all foreign, bygone civilisations as much the same and mixes Indo-Manchurian- Islamic motifs into a sort of Magic Flute composite. It even absorbs a touch of Italian Risorgimento.

Personally, I've no problems with this: it's done with dignity, and Denis O'Neill looks less silly in trousers than he would in an Egyptian shift. But he needs more than a flattering wardrobe to make a real impression as Radames. He never, alas, rises beyond the worthily reliable, working hard but without charisma as the voice shifts effortfully through its registers. Far more impressive are Alexandru Agache's Amonasro and Luciana d'Intino's Amneris. But these are secondary roles that shouldn't claim the stage as they do here - largely because Cheryl Studer's Aida is so disappointing: insecure and limited in range, albeit with an affecting pathos that didn't deserve the boos her curtain call attracted. English audiences are growing dangerously demonstrative: too many opera holidays in Latin countries.

Aldeburgh Festival: 0728 453543, continues all week. 'Aida': ROH, WC2, 071- 240 1066, Monday and Friday.

(Photograph omitted)