3 things you might not know about Aldeburgh Festival 2016

You’ve probably already heard a lot about circus and birds. Here is a small selection of things you might not know about this year’s programme:

1. Around a third of the events are in one way or another ‘home grown’.

That is, a third of the projects have been devised or developed at Snape or have grown out of our year-round programme of artist development and residencies – a statistic that marks Aldeburgh Festival out from most of the world’s other leading classical music festivals. There’s no separate strand for these events – they’re woven into the fabric of the festival, from Illuminations itself, which has been developed here over a series of residencies, to the Festival Masterclasses with mezzo-soprano Bernada Fink, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Thomas Quasthoff and concerts with graduates (Trio Isimsiz, Britten–Pears Contemporary Ensemble) of our Britten–Pears Young Artist Programme.

There are also two highly idiosyncratic projects devised as part of our Open Space programme, which gives innovative and ambitious artists and ensembles bespoke support for several years. In The Discovery of Bomarzo (Tuesday 21 June, 3pm) the brilliant early music collective Solomon’s Knot, who have been supported by our Open Space programme since 2014, join forces with sound artist and electronica composer Mira Calix to create a 21st-century musical meditation on a spectacularly Mannerist, almost surreal 16th-century Italian sculpture garden, bringing together madrigals by Gesualdo, de Wert and others, and new sounds from Calix.

Meanwhile on Thursday 23 June the Festival Organ Crawl is a brilliantly eccentric vintage bus tour of Suffolk churches and church organs by open space artists Kit Downes and Tom Challenger. They perform their own new work for organ and saxophone on three instruments that range from the powerfully impressive to the slightly wheezing, guiding you as you travel between the three venues.

2. The avant garde of 100 years ago is pretty exciting.

The 14–18 NOW: Piano Century event on Friday 24 June is a typically exciting Aldeburgh marathon of three short recitals by pianists Tamara Stefanovich, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Håkon Austbø pairing radical works composed during the years of WWI with new and recenly-composed music.

Beyond the familiar twin poles of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, it is remarkable to discover what was happening in the arts on the periphery of Europe. In Russia Alexander Skryabin, who would die in 1915, was writing his final piano works, using heady ever-more-complex harmonies, pushing the soundworlds of Wagner and Liszt to further and further extremes. In his last decade Skryabin planned to create spectacular, apocalyptic and mystical staged works, fusing his own performance, synaesthetic lighting and Eastern philosophy. Although his plans were never fully realised in his lifetime, his reputation as a revolutionary was established.

It seems fitting that Norwegian pianist Håkon Austbø first discovered Skryabin’s music while in Paris in 1968, having just taken part in the student uprising of that year. Yet despite being bowled over remarkable richness and ambition of the music, Austbø says it took him more than a decade after that to make sense of and interpret what he describes as Scriabin’s ‘dangerous world’.

Yet for a group of Russian composers who were a generation younger than Skryabin, the older composer was not nearly radical enough. Composers Nikolai Roslavets and Nikolai Obukhov were part of a generation of Russian artists exploring ultra-modernist, futurist modes of expression in a brief period of incredible artistic experimentation before the advent of the Soviet Union. In his article in the Aldeburgh Festival programme book, Paul Griffiths writes that although initially influenced by Skryabin, Roslavets was soon criticising him for ‘oversimplification’ and extending his tonality towards a kind of tonal organisation ‘not far removed from Schoenberg’s serialist technique’.

The different fates of Obukhov and Roslavets are representative of those of other Russian futurists. Obukhov escaped to Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution and went on to explore the creation of new electronic instruments, while Roslavets stayed, first ignored in the 1920s and then and later declared an ‘enemy of the people’ and his music banned.

3. Aged 70, György Kurtág helped a young German sculptor find his path towards becoming an artist and took his works as inspiration for his music.

Alexander Polzin is a 41-year-old sculptor born in East Germany. At the age of 20 and unsure of whether to become a stone mason or try to make a career as an artist, Polzin met the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, then 70, in Berlin and gave him a tour of his studio.

Kurtág was so inspired by Polzin’s work that he decided to support the younger man financially for a year in order that Polzin could dedicate himself to art. He also took one of Polzin’s works for his own composing studio and over the course of the 20 years since, the two have been swapping works and fragments inspired by and dedicated to the other. The exhibition, which is spread around the Snape Maltings site, is a fascinating record of a rich creative friendship.

I particularly love his portraits of Kurtág, below. Because for many who know Kurtág it is difficult to imagine him without his wife Marta, Polzin has made their inseparable-ness the defining feature of the portraits.

Alexander Polzin: Gyorgy and Martha Kurtag © Klaus Michalek

Alexander Polzin: Gyorgy and Martha Kurtag © Klaus Michalek

Find out more about the exhibition at http://www.snapemaltings.co.uk/event/alexander-polzin-aldeburgh-festival-exhibition.

And of course, see the whole festival programme at http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/festival.