MUSIC / Past, present, future: Stephen Johnson, at the Aldeburgh Festival, is struck by strong presences and a disturbing sense of loss

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The Independent Culture
Like it or not, there is still a noticeable absence (or rather two noticeable absences) at the Aldeburgh Festival. Wherever you wander in the Maltings Concert Hall, Britten and Pears - like T S Eliot's Macavity - aren't there. It isn't simply the obvious fact they are no longer with us; there is virtually nothing specific to remember them by. A portrait of Imogen Holst and a bust of Lady Cranbrook are positioned discreetly on the stairs, but of the two great founding fathers, no memorial. Only their private box gapes emptily at the side of the auditorium. The avoidance of ostentation would no doubt have pleased them both, and you could always argue that the place itself is monument enough. And yet the effect is disturbing. It's as though Aldeburgh refuses to mourn or even to acknowledge their passing.

No one could deny the achievement of artistic directors Oliver Knussen and Steuart Bedford in bringing new life and musical riches to Aldeburgh, and yet all it requires is one living contact with the great past - the gaunt figure of John Shirley- Quirk in the new Noye's Fludde for instance - and the sense of loss returns uncomfortably. If this impression is correct, then Aldeburgh still needs to make the decisive break - to acknowledge that the past is past and even open to criticism. Only then can it achieve a comparable energy, hope and sense of purpose.

There is every reason why it should. For a London concert critic, used to difficult acoustics and unattractive buildings, the beauty of the Maltings and the near-miraculous adaptability of its hall can be a bit of a shock at first. How many other places in this country could comfortably programme - as Aldeburgh did last weekend - a recital for voice and piano, a Handel opera, one of the bigger of Mahler's orchestra-only symphonies and a fully staged Noye's Fludde, with hundreds of young musicians and actors and an auditorium full of lusty adult hymn-singers? And there were fine things. Noye's Fludde was a strong posthumous vindication of Britten's vision of community music-making, and a hopeful sign that this Government's neglect hasn't crushed the life out of state school musical activity. It was a delight. I loved the improvised animal custumes, the quasi-Egyptian Gossips, and most of all the well-synchronised vitality.

The performance of Handel's Tamerlano on Friday was evidence that the Britten-Pears school is doing its job well. Outstanding among the singers were soprano Talita Theobald as Asteria, counter tenor Simon Clulow as Tamerlano and Andrew Collis, a vibrant bass-baritone in the all-too-small role of Leone. Tamelano makes a long evening, but the student orchestra, directed by Roy Goodman, showed no sign of flagging.

Then there was the soprano Elena Prokina's Russian song recital an Saturday morning. Prokina sang well-contrasted songs by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov deliciously and with an unforced directness that reached well back into the hall. There was nothing aloof or self-admiring here, but the range of expression was stunning. Whether In Rachmaninov's sweetly beautiful 'Daisies' or Tchaikovsky's disturbing 'Once again, alone', Prokina's identification with the song's inner world was complete. No ghosts of festivals past here, instead a positive pointer to the future.