The 75th edition of the Aldeburgh Festival will see world premieres from Tom Coult and a 60th anniversary celebration of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, alongside other works by the composer. The Festival season also includes performances of works by Imogen Holst and Carl Vine.
On 10 June Daniel Pioro and the Marian Consort, directed by Rory McCleery, give the world premiere of Coult’s Hymns of Kassiana, commissioned by Britten Pears Arts. The 8-minute work is based on two chants by Byzantine composer Kassia. Coult takes a free approach in adapting the material, stretching, compressing, and multiplying aspects of both. In O Vasilevs tis doxis Christos, a tenor voice intones the hymns, surrounded by eerie harmonies and metronomic ticking. The second part, Hymn of Kassiana, is broader and more vaulting. Coult adapts Kassia’s most famous hymn – it is sometimes presented in the voices, sometimes in the violin, but always with instabilities in tuning and declamatory calls from the whole choir.
Their programme Mystic Ritual, designed for Blythburgh Church in the fading evening light, also features the first performance of Coult’s arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s O Euchari for violin and voices, another commission from Britten Pears Arts. The 8-minute work is paired with O Ecclesia, an earlier arrangement of her music for the same forces by Coult, which receives its first performance from Pioro and the Marian Consort at Wigmore Hall on 28 March.
Pioro, one of the 2024 Festival’s artists-in-focus and a longstanding champion of Coult’s music, premiered the previous versions of O Ecclesia for violin and organ and violin and strings, the latter created with Pioro in 2021. His recording of Coult’s violin concerto Pleasure Garden, which he premiered in 2021, will feature on an orchestral portrait disc from NMC released later this year.
Imogen Holst’s Suite for String Orchestra, recently published by Faber Music, will be performed by Britten Sinfonia and Olivia Clarke on 13 June at Snape Maltings, as part of a programme that concludes with Gustav Holst’s chamber opera Sāvitri. The 15-minute piece, first performed at Wigmore Hall in 1943 and conducted by the composer, opens with a lilting Prelude in 5/8 whose groupings of three and two beats fluctuate throughout with shifting time signatures; it is succeeded by a rambunctious fugue with a rugged folk-like subject in three. The third movement is a limpid intermezzo with a spotlight on a solo violin in its middle section; its finale is a scurrying Gigue.
The Festival celebrate the 60th anniversary of Britten’s Curlew River with two performances of a new staging by Claire van Kampen on 21 and 22 June at Blythburgh Church, which will also be recorded for broadcast on BBC television. An all-star cast, conducted by Audrey Hyland, features Ian Bostridge as the Madwoman, baritone Willard White as the Ferryman, and bass-baritone Peter Brathwaite as the Traveller. Bostridge previously performed the Madwoman in a production by Netia Jones for the Barbican at St. Giles Cripplegate for the Britten centenary in 2013.
Curlew River is the story of a woman, stricken by grief, searching for her missing son; through her determination to be reunited with she discovers a form of redemption. Britten and librettist William Plomer were inspired by Japanese Noh theatre in their creation of the 71-minute piece, Britten first encountering the traditional drama with Peter Pears on a tour of the Far East in 1956. Curlew River reflects its preoccupation with encounters between mortal and divine realms, as well as its use of a small group of instrumentalists, singers, and actors, and its heightened, ritualised atmosphere.
Scored for flute, horn, viola, double bass, harp, percussion, and organ, as well as a male chorus and boy treble, Curlew River represented an experimental advance in Britten’s compositional technique, using short, decorative figures in solo instruments that are freely repeated and superimposed to create dynamic, unsynchronised layers.
The ‘Church Parable’ form – culminating in the creation of The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968) – brought Noh theatre into dialogue with medieval Miracle Plays, English choral music traditions, and Britten’s attachment to the landscape of East Anglia – the titular curlew being a common sight on the marshes and reedbeds around the river Alde. 2024 Festival Audiences can see Motomasa Kanze’s Sumidagawa, the Japanese Noh play from which Britten and Plomer drew their scenario, at Snape Maltings on 18 June as part of the Festival; visitors to The Red House can also explore Curlew River as part of a temporary exhibition from 28 March to 3 November.
Other performances of Britten’s music at the 2024 Festival include the 27-minute Suite from Death in Venice, devised by Steuart Bedford in 1984, at its closing concert on 23 June from Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra at Snape Maltings; on 22 June Festival audiences can watch a screening of Deborah Warner’s production of the 1973 opera for ENO, revived in 2013, at Aldeburgh Cinema. On 15 June Alban Gerhardt, another 2024 artist-in-focus, performs Britten’s Cello Suite No. 3 at Orford Church; the 22-minute work was first performed by Rostropovich at the Festival 50 years ago.
On 21 June at Snape Maltings ‘Short Story’ from The Anne Landa Preludes by Carl Vine will appear as one of pianist Kathryn Stott’s ‘Musical Postcards’. The 3-minute ‘Short Story’ opens Vine’s 2006 collection of preludes, which celebrates the great Australian piano pedagogue. The ‘story’ of the title is not programmatic; rather, Vine says, its “drama emerges from its own internal logic”. The concert opens Stott’s final tour as a professional performer; in 2018 she gave the world premiere, with Piers Lane, Rory MacDonald and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, of Vine’s concerto for two pianos Implacable Gifts.