On record – Adès Conducts Adès: Piano Concerto & Totentanz (Deutsche Grammophon)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo), Mark Stone (baritone), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)
Totentanz (2013)

Deutsche Grammophon 4837998 [55’58”]

Producer Nick Squire
Engineer Joel Watts

Live performances, recorded November 2016 (Totentanz) & March 2019 (Piano Concerto) at Symphony Hall, Boston

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Thomas Adès has latterly been enjoying a productive association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They appear here in two recent and pointedly contrasted pieces which, between them, make for a viable overview of a compositional ethos as absorbing as it is frustrating.

What’s the music like?

From the outset Adès evidently had in mind a ‘proper’ piano concerto, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is precisely that: three movements, of virtually equal length, unfolding along archetypal designs – sonata, ternary and rondo forms – even if their angle of approach is not what it might have been. The first movement abounds in jazzy inferences, albeit with a more relaxed ‘second subject’ to provide a modicum of contrast, while the central Andante is overlaid with intriguing symmetries that offset what might otherwise seem unremarkable material. The final Allegro duly renews the animated dialogue between soloist and orchestra in what could be termed an equable meeting between Gershwin and Ligeti, with Prokofiev putting-in an unexpected appearance toward the decisive and effervescent close. This is not the radical departure from Adès’s previous concertante pieces as might be supposed, though neither is this merely a triumph of concept over content. Whether it manages to revitalize a genre which has had precious few additions during the past half-century remains to be seen.

Certainly, the Concerto makes a telling foil to Totentanz. This is a setting of an anonymous 15th-century commentary to a frieze (destroyed in wartime) where Death visits a succession of those representing the medieval social strata and their responses thereof. Despite utilising male and female voices, it is not a song-cycle so much as a dramatic scena in which loss is considered in the context of a ‘dance of death’ that motivates the greater discourse. Each of those visited is allotted a specific musical expression, though the initial call-and-response is gradually blurred as vocal parts are overlaid in an intensifying activity towards the seismic orchestral culmination.

Characterisation of the remaining protagonists risk losing focus, yet there could be no mistaking the plaintive sensuousness of the encounter with the Maiden or the disarming naïveté of that with the Child as the music wends a weary Mahlerian way to its close. Each encounter is interpretable from different and even competing perspectives which extend the range of expression, while making it ambivalent to the point of disingenuousness.

Does it all work?

Yes, given that both performances meet the challenges of each work head on. Kirill Gerstein sounds unfazed in this world premiere of the Concerto, aligning himself to the orchestra with well-nigh perfect synchronization. The composer secures a truly virtuosic response from the Boston Symphony here and in Totentanz, during which Christianne Stotijn brings a decidedly fraught pathos while Mark Stone responds with burnished intensity. Adès has been lucky in the exponents of his music throughout his career and both these occasions were no exception.

Is it recommended?

It is – not least because these works, markedly different in themselves, suggest a continued desire to bring the flippant and the earnest into unlikely though productive accord. Whether they constitute a surrender to, or a critique of, the zeitgeist remains part of their fascination.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sea Symphony’ & A Lark Ascending

James Ehnes (violin), Sarah Fox (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Andrew Manze (above)

David Matthews Norfolk March (2016)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Hamish MacCunn Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887)
Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-1909)

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; Thursday 9 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

This live encounter with Vaughan WilliamsSymphony no.1 (A Sea Symphony) was an unforgettable experience. Under Andrew Manze the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are working their way through a recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies, and this performance was the only chance to catch the fruits of their labours in the live concert hall.

There was a last-minute change to the solo ranks, baritone Mark Stone replacing the indisposed Andrew Foster-Williams, but his voice was perfectly suited to the occasion. It was twinned with the ringing soprano of Sarah Fox, and the two dovetailed beautifully in the outer movements. One of many highlights of the performance was the nocturnal glint of the moon on the waves for the second movement, On The Beach At Night Alone, which was evocatively cast.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir – over 100strong in this performance – were on superb form, sharply rehearsed and clear in diction, meaning there was no need for the accompanying words. They found the swell of the waves with unerring confidence and passion. Manze clearly loves this music, and brought the Scherzo to a half with shattering precision before grasping the last movement’s ebb and flow to great satisfaction, making good sense of what can be a long movement in the wrong hands.

Prior to this we enjoyed another encounter with the raw elements through Hamish MacCunn’s overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. A tuneful work, it was immediately appealing through the tasteful ornamentation of the Scotch snaps in the cellos’ melody at the start. The music blossomed under Manze’s direction, though could have been even more exuberant in its closing pages.

Perhaps this was because it followed a rapt and incredibly restful performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending, his famous response to the George Meredith poem of the same name. Under the spell of James Ehnes‘ violin, we climbed effortlessly into the sky, ending the ascent in barely audible song as the bird disappeared from earshot. It was proof that despite the ubiquity of the ‘Lark’, Vaughan Williams still holds the ability to stop the listener in their tracks.

The first item in the concert was deceptively named as David MatthewsNorfolk March. It was in fact a concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody no.3, a piece lost in the wake of its first performance in 1906. Matthews however had a detailed programme note about the piece with which to work, describing its structure and folksong origins, and responded with a piece that was well above mere pastiche. In fact it proved a poignant reminder of the climate in which it was written, anticipating World War I in eight years’ time. There, alongside the cheery and resolute folk tunes, was uncertainty and barely concealed dread. Just over 100 years on it proved a timely reminder for many of those in the audience young and fortunate enough not to have experienced such times.

Further listening and reading

You can read in more detail about David Matthews’ Norfolk March here

Photos of Andrew Manze and James Ehnes (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Meanwhile a Spotify playlist with music from the concert (with the exception of the Matthews, which has not yet been recorded) can be accessed below: