MUSDIC / Pleasure it was: Nick Kimberley on Bayan Northcott's 'Musical Portrait' at the Aldeburgh Festival

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The Independent Culture
It's a brave composer who, himself a critic, assembles a concert self-portrait, placing his own work - including the always fateful Op 1 - beside Purcell, Haydn, Stravinsky; and presents it to an audience sprinkled with critics. Bayan Northcott, music writer for this paper, is such a composer. During the Aldeburgh Festival's opening weekend, his 'Musical Portrait' got an attentive Saturday morning audience in Jubilee Hall.

Introducing each work with both modesty and pride, Northcott described himself as a 'semi-autodidact', explaining that his Op 1, an oboe sonata finished when he was 39, arrived so late because, no doubt weighed down by history, he set himself too many insoluble problems.

The sonata itself posed a few and, although Melinda Maxwell displayed prodigious control, it was difficult to sense a line being followed. Two other Northcott pieces came across more powerfully. Three English Lyrics pitted Lucy Shelton's soprano against clarinet, viola, double-bass. A vehement burst from the trio set a mood for 'Pleasure it is', not the pastoral wallow the poem suggested. In 'The maidens came', although the clarinet had lovely phrases, it was Shelton who characterised most vividly.

Northcott's introduction promised the percussionist a 'desperate workout' in his 1985 Sextet, but the work was less clangorous than that suggests. The first movement was dominated by bass clarinet, its doleful lyricism opening a way into the work's complexities. The whole programme was illuminated by typically Northcottian insights: in 18th-century music, Bach was master of discourse, Haydn of dialectic; Stravinsky's Three Shakespeare Songs suggested an Elizabethan composer had discovered serialism three centuries too early (an idea for Peter Greenaway?). The Endymion Ensemble performed diligently although, eschewing period instrument manners, it sounded cumbersome in Haydn, more relaxed in Northcott's witty dismemberment of Purcell.

The previous evening, Oliver Knussen gave the festival a rousing start, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme that sounded the festival keynotes. Mahler's Todtenfeier, first version of what became the opening movement of the Resurrection symphony, nearly ripped the roof off Snape Maltings Concert Hall, the strings' furiously sawing bows waving like reeds in a hurricane. Stravinsky's The Flood, written for TV, was more distanced and ironic. In the Caller's Catalogue of animals destined for the Ark, Peter Hall gave discreetly modern emphasis to the ferret, and earlier made a nicely self-congratulatory Lucifer. Gerard Murphy's Narrator was actorly, and his flowing locks would no doubt have pleased the shampoo manufacturer who sponsored the original TV broadcast.

The evening's climax was a thrilling performance of Britten's sinister Sinfonia da Requiem, commissioned in 1940 to celebrate Japan's 2,600-year Reich. Under Knussen's impassioned direction the orchestra played fiercely, the audience responded no less passionately. How prompt and generous of the Queen, no doubt moved by Radio 3's live broadcast, to award Knussen the CBE that was announced next morning.

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