The Critics: Music: Still room at the top for a new Britten

Aldeburgh Festival Snape Maltings, Snape St Petersburg Festival Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
There's a famous Aldeburgh story of Britten and Pears creeping out of the festival premiere of Birtwistle's Punch and Judy in a state of shock. And as it's a story more often told against them ("prissy old queens") than against the piece ("brutally abrasive romp") I hesitate to say this, but I nearly followed their example last weekend.

It was the opening of the current Aldeburgh Festival. The piece was Thomas Ades's opera Powder Her Face. And my objection to it wasn't just its brutally abrasive nature (with the first fully orchestrated act of fellatio I'm aware of in an opera score) but that it's an empty exercise in cruel and heartless camp: a sixth-form prank that wasn't worthy of its author when it premiered four years ago at Cheltenham, and should by now have been forgotten.

The problem, though, is that there's no forgetting Thomas Ades at the moment. He is hot: the name on all lips and recipient of all commissions (with two operas pending, one for Glyndebourne, one for Covent Garden). By comparison, no one else in British music seems to get a look-in. And it's sort of understandable. When he first emerged as a major talent, I wrote that he was the finest composer of his generation, and I still think so. He has a brilliant mind, a curious personality, a sure voice and incredible all-round musicianship. His work is wonderfully imagined, and at 28 he inhabits a class of his own.

But that said, the promotional machinery which surrounds him has got out of hand, and signals a desperation in contemporary music. Since the death of Britten there has been a vacuum - as though we've all been waiting for a Second Coming - and the powers of the music world have decided that Ades shall be the answer. The new Britten. It's a silly claim. It does him no good. It insults the many older composers around who have far more to show for themselves than he. And in fairness to Ades, there was a time when he took pains to distance himself from Britten comparisons. But taking over the Aldeburgh Festival as its new artistic director seems to have put an end to that.

In principle, the appointment of Ades is a good idea. Aldeburgh needs a composer at its helm: somebody spirited and high-profile, with an eye and ear for clever programming. Ades is all that, and his programmes in this first year are attractive and intelligent. The Aldeburgh box office is accordingly doing well. But he hasn't been shy about giving his own work pride of place (it makes the self-denial of Michael Berkeley at Cheltenham or Judith Weir at Spitalfields look positively saintly) and to have put Powder Her Face upfront was, I think, a mistake. The world didn't need another production of this piece. And it certainly didn't need the production delivered by David Alden at Snape Maltings, remarkable only in the economy with which it made the messiest possible staging from the fewest props. It neither told the story nor did anything explicable or useful.

The story is a sequence of scenes from the shallow, spiteful, vacuous life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll; and the best I can say for Powder Her Face is that it's true to its subject. There is nothing to engage the audience's sympathy. Although the penultimate scene comes close to a depiction of humanity - in a blowsy, Mahlerian way - the moment is swept aside by a descent into brittle (and unfunny) high-jinks. This is an opera that doesn't know when to stop. Or how to shape material. Or how to make real theatre. Its obvious models are the morality-vaudevilles of Brecht and Weill, and maybe Lulu. But with no morality, it packs no punch.

On the plus side, it does have some punchy music, and although much of the score is a muscle-flexing pastiche there are moments when Ades's own voice breaks through. One is a striking aria called "Fancy being rich", and to hear it - along with a relentless virtuosity of orchestration - is to know that Ades, one day, will do something special. I should also say that the orchestral playing at Snape by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was dazzling; that Ades conducted impressively; and that Mary Plazas made a stylish Duchess. But I still hope never to see or hear it again.

By contrast, the rest of Aldeburgh's opening weekend was a joy: programmed to please with a nice balance between reverence and subversion. The subversion came with a lot of music for mechanical instruments, including the crazy hyperaction of Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano rolls and the bizarre novelty of a concerto for orchestra and hurdy-gurdys by Haydn. Sonically a cross between a comb-and-paper and the squeak made when you punch a soft toy in the stomach, the concert hurdy-gurdy is a phenomenon: in pitch and dynamics a law unto itself. Two hurdy-gurdys are an embarras de richesse, but once heard, never forgotten.

As for seriousness, there was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in superb form under Joseph Swensen, playing a Beethoven 4 like it really mattered. And in that same programme came Imogen Cooper playing a magical Mozart Piano Concerto K271, with the light, warm tread and cushioned legato that comes (I suspect) from playing so much Schubert. Cooper was in fact in residence at Aldeburgh, playing alongside the astonishingly mature-in- sound though young-in-years Belcea Quartet in a concert of Dvorak and Berg that left me wondering if it wasn't the best young quartet I'd ever heard. She also accompanied Wolfgang Holzmair in another of their priceless song-recital partnerships that seem to work especially well in festival circumstances. This one was at Blythborough Church, which isn't the most comfortable venue: crowded, cold, and damp from drizzling rain. But from the first notes of the Schumann/Britten programme it felt so good to be there, wrapped in the intensity of Holzmair's sharp response to text (enlarged by the most eloquent hand-signals in the business) and Cooper's pliant but supportive pianism. Of such things are lasting festival memories made. It's just a pity that, this year, we've had to blank out a few others.

Back in London, the Barbican has been running a festival series of its own, timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the birth of Pushkin. Broadly speaking, it's been a good excuse for all those poor, itinerant Russian companies like the Petersburg Philharmonic and Kirov Opera to come and earn the serious money that they don't at home. They can come as often as they like so far as I'm concerned - especially the Kirov which, on Monday, gave a performance of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk so blistering in its attack, immediacy and strength that it stung my ears as well as my soul. This was painfully exciting playing, with singing of dynamic stature from a host of principals who delivered world-class sound in the most matter-of-fact manner. Larissa Shevchenko's Katerina was full and luscious, Vladimir Galutsin's Sergei a marvel of clear, cutting resonance. Valery Gergiev's conducting, as always, turned the performance into an Event. How they do it trudging from city to city - Paris tonight, London tomorrow - I don't know. Russian spirit, I suppose. No doubt at 70 per cent proof.

Aldeburgh Festival (01728 453543) to 27 June. St Petersburg Festival (0171 638 8891) to 30 June.

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