Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh

Back on imaginative form
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The Independent Culture

When A flash of lightning briefly reduced the Snape Maltings Concert Hall to semi-darkness near the beginning of the first performance of Poul Ruders's Abysm, Thomas Adès and members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group didn't miss a beat. What they experienced next, however, in the dark backward and abysm of time, were sounds and sweet airs playing out of the speakers at either side of the stage. A surge of electricity as the power was restored had triggered off the equipment set up to feed in the pre-recorded part of Colin Matthews's Continuum, the concert's final work. Everything ceased and a somewhat mystified audience applauded, stopped mid-clap by Adès, who quickly began Abysm again.

With the quotations Ruders selected from Shakespeare, Farid Ud-din Altar and Blake printed in front of you, it's tempting to imagine that you can hear in each of the three phantasmagorical tone poems the colouring, texture and shape these words suggested to the composer. In musical reality, the first "Abysm" is pretty unfathomable in its ponderous deliberations; it's not clear why the tiny central scherzo "Burning" is so succinct, and the final "Spectre" yields little more explanation.

But when the playing of BCMG is so convincing, Ruders's use of the 12 players so resourceful and the overall effect so severely compelling, the value of Abysm is obvious as a piece of music well worth persevering with in order to understand it better.

While the Danish Ruders piles sound upon sound, especially in his daunting Second Piano Sonata so impressively executed by Adès, the Italian Salvatore Sciarrino ­ another of the festival's featured composers ­ concerns himself more with the sound of near-silence. It was for this reason that pianist Nicolas Hodges appeared in Jubilee Hall wearing what appeared to be bandages but turned out to be fingerless gloves. Sliding and gliding up and down the keyboard in Quattro Notturni, Hodges created a fascinating array of barely audible night noises, delicately depressing clusters of keys and setting up scarcely perceptible arcs of vibrations conjuring up the strange and mysterious aura of a night which grew even darker in the subsequent premiere of Due notturni crudeli.

Hodges' fantastic technical ability and innate understanding of Sciarrino's music turned the UK premiere of his luminous Il clima dopo Harry Partch for piano and orchestra into the climax of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert under Leonard Slatkin. With his beautifully delineated account of the work's minute adjustments of rhythms, dynamics and inflexions, Hodges led a poetic performance that lingered long in the mind even after a surprisingly brash account of Elgar's overture In the South threatened to blow it away.

It was a weekend in which the Aldeburgh Festival under Thomas Adès proved beyond doubt that it has, in its very essence, returned to the sparklingly imaginative form that set the agenda in Britten's own day. If I had to choose one highlight it would be Cynthia Clarey's stunning interpretation of Colin Matthews' "scena" Continuum, with the BCMG conducted by Sakari Oramo. Singing from memory, Clarey brought an exemplary naturalness and confidence to the tricky intonation and phrasing of the Italian, French and English texts, while in the linear intricacies of their interludes, the instrumentalists conveyed a remarkable sense of improvisation.

The Aldeburgh Festival runs until Sunday (01728 687110)

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