MUSIC / Making an exhibition of itself: Stephen Johnson visits Aldeburgh

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHY DOES 'well-presented' sound like veiled criticism? Peter Paul Nash's concert of his own and others' music at Aldeburgh was extremely well-presented: scripted links full of penetrating observations, professionally delivered, and music juxtaposed in ways that threw unexpected lights in all directions.

Per Norgard's Remembering and the C sharp minor Fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-tempered Klavier was a brilliant juxtaposition, not just for the reasons Nash outlined, but because the Norgard seemed to transform itself into a commentary on the Bach; there were even echoes of motifs and progressions. It isn't often that a concert programme works like an imaginatively devised exhibition, but this was a good case.

And what of the central exhibit, Nash himself? To describe the musical personality as complicated would be putting it mildly. At times one senses allusive systems - references, riddles, possibly codes - of almost Joycean complexity. But Nash is not by any means a purely literary composer: he has a superb and apparently natural technique, and the games- playing does seem to be essentially musical, a kind of super-selfconscious Haydn perhaps. And there at the head of the programme was Ravel's hardly less allusive Minuet on the name of Haydn to point the comparison.

Sometimes the references are baffling - why does the sea-shanty 'Shaller Brown' materialise towards the end of Nash's String Quartet No 2? The joke (one senses black humour somewhere in the background) remains perversely private. But the Ravel reference in the closing section of In a Walled Garden sets in motion something more direct: a chain of distorted quotations and half-quotations that build to a real emotional catharsis - and yet how typical of Nash to pull the rug from under his own feet after such a moment of near self-revelation. There are sudden gusts of confessional warmth in both those works, but violence is never far away - the honey always contains powdered glass.

The soprano Sarah Leonard responded magnificently to the interpretative challenges posed by In a Walled Garden and the much earlier, Pierrot-like Terrace; the Brindisi String Quartet gave every impression of being initiated in the secrets of the Second Quartet, and Rolf Hind gave exceptionally beautiful performances of the Bach Fugue, Norgard's Remembering and Sibelius's Sonatina in F sharp minor.

Contrast with the music of Toru Takemitsu, whose Archipeligo S. was premiered at the Maltings in Snape by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta the previous evening, was extreme. Sometimes one suspects that Takemitsu has one continuous piece of music going on in his head - like an endless roll of sonic wallpaper - and that from time to time he simply cuts himself another piece. And yet the results can be so shamefully pleasant. Archipeligo S. often invokes - or simply imitates - the gentler Debussy or Messiaen, but the results seem to come from another world, without conflict or purpose, which it is surprisingly easy to enter and enjoy - for a while at least.

Archipeligo S. followed a revival of Alexander Goehr's Piano Concerto, completed and first performed in 1972. This is transitional work par excellence. The solo piano part points increasingly towards the rich new vein Goehr has tapped in more recent years, especially at the beginning of the second movement. Here he evolved a style which unironically invokes Chopin and even Brahms, yet remains lucidly original. Peter Serkin played it beautifully.