Aldeburgh Festival still sprightly at 60

IAN COLLINS Something old, something new, something borrowed and a bit of blues. IAN COLLINS hails the Aldeburgh Festival as a sprightly summer attraction turns 60.

IAN COLLINS

Grey was the colour of the late 1940s - in everything from rubble, rationing, smog and meat and veg boiled and spoiled into a monochrome mush. But then came a sunburst over the North Sea at just about the greyest spot of all - Aldeburgh.

This dour Suffolk fishing town with a sprinkling of retired spies was an unlikely setting for what is now, as it tunes up for its 60th gala, England's most distinguished summer arts festival.

The music-led jamboree Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier launched in 1948 was modest indeed. It centred on the Jubilee Hall, a few doors from the house the Lowestoft-raised composer shared with Pears, his partner-singer-muse, in Crabbe Street.

With a performance of Albert Herring by the English Opera Group, and a premiere of the newly-written St Nicholas Cantata Op. 42, this was really a vehicle for Britten's work with a spare wheel of other attractions.

What a brilliant, if bumpy, ride it's been over six decades; Britten ejected many former collaborators (including Eric Crozier) and the revamped heart of the festival, Snape Maltings, burned down hours after a triumphant opening.

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Rising from the flames, and several times upgraded, the concert hall in the marshes is today a world-class venue and a complete joy.

The festive fortnight opening on Friday now lights up the town and much of the Suffolk coast - with scores of official and unofficial exhibitions (and artists, artistes and exhibitionists) spilling over venues which range from the beach to the former American airbase at Bentwaters.

There are concerts in a congregation of medieval churches - with, oh bliss, the Monteverdi Vespers at Blythburgh - and a fringe festival in the Pumphouse club lately created from a Victorian sewage pumping station in a most witty and wonderful recycling scheme.

In the last few years, the veteran gala has perked up no end under the sparky and spiky artistic direction of composer Thomas Ades (now in partnership with John Woolrich), while still remaining true to the tradition of blending the old and the new, the familiar and the challenging.

Now the 60th festival is returning to one of Britten's late and greatest works, Death in Venice, first staged at Snape Maltings in 1973 when the composer lay nearby, too ill to attend.

Composed for the voice of Peter Pears - and with a text by Myfanwy Piper, based on the Thomas Mann novella - the opera is the Suffolk composer's most intimate and poignant work.

Directed by Yoshi Oida (who acted in Peter Greenaway's cult film The Pillow Book) and featuring Alan Oke, Peter Sidhom and William Towers, the Aldeburgh revival comes hot on the

heels of Deborah Warner's acclaimed version for English National Opera.

The most unforgettable image, however, is surely from the Visconti movie, with Dirk Bogarde perspiring and expiring on the Lido, with a trickle of black hair dye falling like a tear. The film will be showing in Aldeburgh's fab cinema.

Several recitals staged, as usual, in Aldeburgh church have the bonus of a backdrop in the form of the marvellous stained-glass window designed by John Piper (Myfanwy's husband) in Britten's memory.

Other highlights include world premieres of works by Johannes Maria Staud, Nicholas Maw, Thomas Ades and Per Nogard, as well as the first UK performance of Straveinsky's last work - an arrangement of Bach's Preludes

and Fugues - given by Northern Sinfonia.

There are also appearances by Aldeburgh's long-standing festival favourites Alfred Brendel, Britten Sinfonia and the Belcea Quartet, as well as guest recitals by Simon Keenlyside, Thomas Zehetmair and Masaaki Suzuki.

Experimental projects include Elephant & Castle - a performance event blending music by the Suffolk-based DJ Mira Calix and the classically-trained composer Tansy Davies - and Faster Than Sound, an evening of electronica, visual installations, contemporary classical performances and sonic installations at the ghostly Bentwaters ex-base.

Italy in general, and Venice in particular, will be a theme of the

festival, with a tribute to the Venetian composer Luigi Nono led by his widow, Nuria Shoenberg Nono, and an airing of Britten's third string quartet which was written in the fabled city.

Truth to tell, tickets for the Aldeburgh festival are far from cheap, and yet many concerts could sell out several times over.

But rather than just making do with the welcome broadcasts on Radio 3, the ticketless should still held to the seaside party - especially on the next three Sundays, when events light up the

beach.

Listen for free, while tucking into some of the best fish and chips on the east coast. Or, visit the box office to browse through the brochure for the Snape Proms, the festive (jazzy, folky, classical and poetic) reprise now running throughout August.

60th Aldeburgh Festival runs from June 8-24. Box office 01728 687110; www.aldeburgh.co.uk).

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