by Alex Ross
New York Times, July 2, 1995
The cane-backed wooden chairs in Snape Maltings, the Aldeburgh Festival's acoustically miraculous concert hall, are exact copies of the seats at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany. In other respects, too, Aldeburgh, founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948, resembles Bayreuth: it is the legacy of a strong-willed composer who wished to insure the authentic presentation of his works. In Britten's final years, Aldeburgh was notorious for Wagnerian intrigues. After Britten's death, Michael Tippett spoke witheringly of a "mausoleum atmosphere."
Traces of that atmosphere remain, but Aldeburgh has changed much in recent years. The buoyant presence of Oliver Knussen, who directs the festival with the Britten specialist Steuart Bedford, has made all the difference: Aldeburgh is now a 20th-century music festival of wide scope and generous spirit. Last month, the strongest spotlight fell on two living composers, one from Finland and one from England. They made powerful impressions as separate personalities, and together they told a heartening story of a younger generation's increasing independence from compositional dogma and polemics.
At first sight, the 37-year-old Magnus Lindberg seemed an odd choice for composer-in-residence. Unlike such past visitors as Witold Lutoslawski and Hans Werner Henze, Mr. Lindberg is still a composer in process. He made his name little more than 10 years ago with works of remarkable density and ferocity, partaking as much of the spirit of free jazz or punk rock as of classical tradition. He has also worked at Pierre Boulez's Ircam, the Paris bastion of electronic music, and thus comes from a Bayreuth of a different stripe.
In the last decade, however, Mr. Lindberg has inched closer to the fundamentally tonal world of Britten's music. He has not, to be sure, made the kind of abrupt volte-face now common among composers trained in the European avant-garde or American academic Serialism. He has not suddenly thrown away his charts and graphs and begun writing unadulterated C major. His recent music is closely linked to his radical early works.
What distinguished this composer from the outset was his way of ordering difficult materials into simple stories. His signature early piece, "Kraft," showed breathtaking dramatic energy, an extroverted rhetorical flair that brought to mind a latter-day Richard Strauss. It opened with lashings of percussion, shrill tutti chords and shrieking figuration on the clarinet. It descended slowly into silence, at times mimicking the widely spaced twitterings of chance music. Eventually it wheeled back to grand unisons, all but Beethovenian in their insistence.
Mr. Lindberg has a gift for what the literary critic Frank Kermode called "the sense of an ending." An atmosphere of fulfillment gathers in the final pages of his scores. There is an intricate technique underlying this gift, although it cannot be understood merely in technical terms. Mr. Lindberg uses computer programs to organize the vast range of notes he hurls on paper. Rather than give them each equal value, as in the 12-tone system, he favors some over others. By means of computer analysis, he discovers the fundamental or ground note that underlies any given complex chord or sequence of tones.
The slow unveiling of these fundamental tones over the course of a work gives visceral rather than intellectual pleasure. Then order begins to emerge from chaos. In the orchestral soundscape "Kinetics," an earth-shaking low C enters about two-thirds of the way through the piece. In the marvelous tone-poem "Joy," lush chords that would have delighted Scriabin come rushing in toward the end. The experience is somewhat like wandering lost in a labyrinth and then discovering a luminous exit.
Two works heard at Aldeburgh -- "Corrente" for chamber orchestra and the Clarinet Quintet, magically performed by the London Sinfonietta and the Nash Ensemble -- further demonstrate Mr. Lindberg's method. "Corrente" plays with repetitive rhythms that bring to mind Stravinsky and the American Minimalists; deep chiming chords at the close make sense of the decorous melee of overlapping patterns that came before. The quintet dissolves graceful, long-limbed melodic lines into gently shimmering intervals of a major third.
"Aura," played by the BBC Symphony under Mr. Knussen's direction, offered something more. Laid out in four continuous movements, it sways back and forth repeatedly between frenetic developmental activity and widely spaced static chords, recalling the vibrant tensions of Lutoslawski's late music. It is unmistakably of symphonic proportions: the grim, shuddering beat of the first movement brings to mind Mahler's Ninth Symphony (or Britten's "Sinfonia da Requiem"), and the movements that follow have aspects of a slow movement and scherzo.
One goal is uppermost in mind. After some glittering quasi-Minimalist passage work at the beginning of the finale, preceding sections are recalled and amplified; there is a climactic orchestral free-for-all, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, soft, luminous chords appear on the strings. They are uncannily like the final chords of Sibelius's "Tapiola," with ghostly string harmonics attached. They are surprising but also splendidly logical. Here ends a grand utterance in the Romantic tradition, refracted through all the technical possibilities of the late 20th century.
The work of a much younger composer featured at Aldeburgh offered something in its way even more impressive: a musical world fully formed and richly appointed by the age of 23. Thomas Adès, a composer, pianist and conductor who is writing at a mad pace and being performed everywhere, reminds people of the young Britten.
The comparison may not be exaggerated. Mr. Adès (pronounced ADD-us) is a virtuoso in the deepest sense who can accomplish anything he wants. He draws on the widest possible compositional palette: colliding rhythms out of Conlon Nancarrow, a stylistic playfulness akin to Gyorgy Ligeti's recent music, bits and pieces of the English Renaissance, splashes of pure sentimental Romanticism. "Arcadiana," a suite for string quartet, includes a surpassingly lovely movement entitled "O Albion" that bears only the slightest trace of youthful irony.
Impossibly, it all works. The thorniest textures are executed with extreme lucidity; the lyric stretches are genuinely tuneful; the whole weird succession of events makes perplexing sense. This is true not only of "Living Toys," a chamber-orchestra piece performed at Aldeburgh, but also of "Arcadiana," "Still Sorrowing" and the Chamber Symphony, which I studied courtesy of Mr. Adès's publisher, Faber Music.
Dangers lie ahead for Mr. Adès. The nearly unanimous praise may not last. He has been pantingly described as "the new bright young thing of contemporary music"; he has also already been dismissed as another clever young man going nowhere. English musical culture, rich in so many ways, has a damaging tendency to pounce on young talents and suffocate them with attention. It happened to Mr. Knussen and George Benjamin, two greatly gifted composers whose productivity has slowed. In a certain way it happened to Britten himself.
Yet a community that smothers is better than a community that ignores. England and Finland are peculiarly musical nations, and great music arises only when musical culture reaches a point of saturation. Other fresh voices are crowding forward: Kaija Saariaho and Jouni Kaipainen, Simon Holt and Julian Anderson. The music of the future, it seems, is coming from the continental edges. There will never be another Bayreuth, but if we are lucky there will be a few more places like Aldeburgh.