Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How long is long enough?


Three wonderful concerts in just over a week left me wondering how long is long enough? At Norwich Cathedral last Friday Stephen Layton with Polyphony, Trinity College Choir and the Britten Sinfonia offered a concert of glorious Poulenc and Messiaen lasting 64 minutes excluding the interval. The second half comprised just the Poulenc Gloria, which lasted 27 minutes. The duration of 64 minutes is, of course, the length of a CD, which is no coincidence as the programme will be recorded by Hyperion in the next few days for future CD release.

But 27 minutes doesn't take my prize for the shortest programme half. Just eight days before at Snape, the up and coming Russian Alexander Polianichko conducted the Britten Pears Orchestra in a stunning second half of just the 1919 version of Stravinsky's Firebird. Now at little over 20 minutes that takes my prize for the shortest ever programme half. Can any readers beat it?

Just hours after the fleeting Firebird we experienced programme planning going too far the other way at nearby Blythburgh Church. Now this is a very famous venue, not the least for Benjamin Britten's performances which I wrote about here. Blythburgh is a glorious church with glorious acoustics, but it does have its problems as a concert venue. There are no, what they call at Disney Hall, amenities. The car park is a grass field which becomes a bog in wet weather. And the rest rooms, as they call them over on Sequenza21, are two agricutural sheds down a grass slope at the rear of the church. But the fact that that Ben and Peter used these very urinals gives a whole new meaning to the word resonance.


To historic Blythburgh and its agricultural amenities came the brilliant young vocal group Exaudi (who featured in my Elisabeth Lutyens article) and viol consort Fretwork with a suitably sombre programme of sacred music for the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day. Now Good Friday is a fine time to do penance. But twelve o'clock on a Saturday is not so good for 90 minutes of Christian Geist, Heinrich Schütz and Arvo Pärt (his exquisite Stabat Mater in the arrangement by Macolm Bruno for viols) without an interval.

As the excellent performance progressed it was clear that the great and good among the Aldeburgh Easter Festival goers had booked lunch in nearby Southwold's trendy restaurants. In order not to lose their tables the audience was slowly slipping away, just like the North Sea tide that you see in my accompanying photos. Exaudi's young director, James Weeks, rose to the occasion like a true professional, and announced that the eight verses of Christian Geist's Es war aber would be truncated to two in the interests of gastronomy, and we were released into the glorious Easter sunshine with Schütz's mercifully short motet Die mit Tränen säen ringing in our ears.

But this Overgrown Path has a happy ending. We would never leave a concert early for something as mundane as a restaurant booking. After relishing the superb Blythburgh concert to its proper conclusion we enjoyed our tasty picnic (and just a little wine) at nearby Aldeburgh. The photos of Iken Church (the village of Iken is the setting for Britten's The Little Sweep) and the Alde estuary which accompany this article were taken near our picnic site. With views like this long can never be long enough.


Now talking of sacred music, read about L'Orgue Mystique
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1 comment:

Andrew said...

I have been to concerts with very short first halves, which I think just beat yours. One was a Prom with just Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto in it (a little over 15 minutes) and the other was a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert with only Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia (less than 20 minutes). But the second halves were respectively Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and Mahler 6, so I don’t think we could complain about short measure! Incidentally, I think my wife played in the Britten Pears Orchestra concert you mention.