61st Aldeburgh Festival

Ian Collins For a fortnight each June the creative world takes a dazzling dip on the Suffolk coast. Ian Collins previews the diverse delights of the latest Aldeburgh Festival.

Ian Collins

Welcome to the 61st Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts - and how far this great gala has now travelled down the decades while remaining very much at home in the heart of the Suffolk heritage coast.

Back in the grey days of 1947, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier, three youngish friends and collaborators, got a few kindred spirits together for a series of concerts in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall.

However makeshift the operation may have seemed, they knew they were founding a serious festival. And audiences came flocking from the start.

Soon Crozier was to be eclipsed in one of many creative spats which were the dark side of Britten's genius, but the personal and professional partnership with singer Pears remained central to the June jamboree - and, long after their deaths, those two grand ghosts still stalk the stage.

Or stages, rather. For although the Jubilee Hall continues to feature, the main centre is Snape Maltings where, amid ever-expanding shopping and eating and study and residential opportunities, and endlessly breath-taking views over the marshes, an old industrial building has been steadily upgraded into what is now one of the best concert venues in Europe.

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But these days the mid-summer party also spills across ancient churches (Blythburgh, Aldeburgh, Orford) to the beach and on to the former Bentwaters air base, and with late-night energies pumped up Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at the former Victorian pump house which now serves as the festival club.

And although the Aldeburgh creative agenda now plays out all year - and with a Proms season running through August - the main focus is still very much on a fortnight in June, starting from Friday.

There has been a definite revival in festive fortunes over the past decade, under the artistic direction of composer Thomas Ades. Sadly, his ten-year tenure ends this month and clearly he aims to go out on a high note.

In previous Junes he has conducted the premiere of the Orchestral Suite from Powder Her Face - his shocking-to-some opera based on the sex scandal sparked by a photograph of a “headless man” and the late Duchess of Argyll - and the UK premiere of his America, A Prophesy. And he played during the first airing of his piano quintet.

Looking back, he says: “I have known Snape Maltings since I was a child… and the magic of the light and the landscape has drawn me back ever since. Aldeburgh gave me several opportunities to grow as a composer and my music received some of its earliest exposure through the festival.”

And, looking forward to his farewell festival, Ades will conduct a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group concert on Sunday, then join Steven Isserlis for the premiere of his new work for piano and cello on Tuesday.

The gala opens with the unveiling of a new opera, Ocean of Rain, by the Anglo-Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides. It will be the first of several premieres - including a violin concerto by Aldeburgh's associate artistic director, John Woolrich, and Harrison Birtwistle's most recent string quartet.

This year's featured composer is Gyorgy Kurtag, a close collaborator of both Ades and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the latter making three appearances in our gala fortnight before directing next year's festival.

That directorial debut in 2009 will mark a decade since Aimard first performed in Aldeburgh, with a memorable recital interspersed with poetry written and read by Alfred Brendel.

But as well as continuing to slice forward via cutting-edge music - as Britten would have wished - the two-week seaside spectacular will also feature some perennial favourites - such as the Belcea Quarter and pianist Imogen Cooper performing Schubert's Trout Quintet.

Other returning stars include tenor Ian Bostridge accompanied by Antonio Pappano, the choral group EXAUDI, the Gabrieli Consort, the Arditti Quartet, Thomas Zehetmair with Northern Sinfonia, Edward Gardner conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Britten and Walton, baritone Robert Holl, soprano Carolyn Sampson and the Faster Than Sound fusion of electronica and classical music.

Visual arts is also firmly back on the bill with a new exhibition by the Brazilian raised, and formerly Norwich-based, Ana Maria Pacheco.

There will be a major new sculpture plus a selection of recent works on paper by the artist whose hallmark is a mingling of myth and nightmare - in amazing and shocking work combining Latin American magic realism with a focus on the fate of torture victims under despotic regimes.

t The 61st Aldeburgh Festival, June 13-29. Box office: Tel 01728 687110 or email boxoffice@aldeburgh.co.uk. Website: www.aldeburgh.co.uk