In concert – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Ruth Gipps, Adès & Brahms

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Gipps Symphony no.2 Op.30 (1945)
Adès
: The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World premiere]

Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This unexpected yet worthwhile addition to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s season saw the revival of two works recently heard along with a belated premiere – twice postponed – for one of the most notable among the orchestra’s impressive roster of Centenary Commissions.

Its UK premiere guardedly received four years ago, Thomas Adès’s third opera felt limited as to provocative intent by the difficulty of transferring its theme of Spanish religious fascism to a different era. What was undeniable is the suitability of its numerous orchestral passages to being rendered in a more abstract context, hence The Exterminating Angel Symphony heard tonight. Its four sections arguably amount to a symphonic suite rather than symphony per se, yet their formal follow-through undoubtedly makes for a cohesive and finely balanced entity.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla evidently thought so – obtaining an incisive response in the ‘Entrances’ music whose expressive ambivalence intensifies second time around, then a virtuosic one in ‘March’; its malevolence building over a remorseless side-drum tattoo in a vivid foretaste of what lies ahead. Although it draws on one of the opera’s love-duets, ‘Berceuse’ seems a little unyielding in its emotional content despite the allure of scoring as was always apparent here.  It remains for ‘Waltzes’ (following without pause) to provide a suitable finale and, while this extended and ingeniously organized sequence of fragments from across the opera undeniably evokes a notable precedent in terms of its inexorable motion toward ultimate catastrophe, the animation and sheer panache of the CBSO’s playing brought about a suitably emphatic close.

Before this MGT again made a persuasive case for the Second Symphony by the orchestra’s one-time oboist Ruth Gipps, the contrasted sections of its single movement – a martial scherzo and eloquent Adagio framed by an ambivalent Moderato and cumulatively energetic Allegro – audibly unfolding as variations on an evocative theme heard at the start. An autobiographical aspect, concerning personal aspirations near the end of war, explains this piece’s confessional nature. Whether or not it will undergo several further decades of neglect remains to be seen.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, which orchestra and conductor had given before the lockdown last December. Tonight, however, the first movement (exposition repeat taken) was purposefully controlled with real cumulative thrust, a less than decisive transition into the reprise affording the only lapse in momentum prior to a coda of unfettered eloquence. The Andante was once again unerringly shaped in terms of its ruminative contrasts, and if the third movement had now become a little torpid, this hardly affected its unforced pathos. MGT rightly made the finale the culmination in every sense, her tautening of tension at the apex of its development yielding as tangible an expressive frisson as did the coda – where the work’s main motif descends as if from afar to secure the most transfigured of emotional touchdowns.

A memorable addition to an inevitably truncated yet memorable (and for all the right reasons) season, which the CBSO repeated at the Proms the following night. Beyond that, the autumn portion of its 2021/22 season has just been announced.

You can find information on the CBSO’s new season here.

On Record – Orchestra of the Swan: Timelapse (Signum Classics)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Timelapse is a concept album from the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Bruce O’Neil and its artistic director David Le Page. Together they have created a sequence of works from as far back as the 17th century or as recently as last year, the concept illustrating how music can transcend time. In Le Page’s summary, Rameau and Vivaldi can be seen as fresh contemporaries of Thomas Adès or Radiohead, while the roots to songs from David Bowie and The Smiths are seen to lie in the music of Mahler and Vaughan Williams.

What’s the music like?

Timelapse hangs together as an hour of music perfectly suited to either end of the day. Its sequence is an imaginative one, and it hangs together in the way Le Page indicates thanks to the quality of his arrangements. There are no syrupy cover versions here; instead a song like Bowie’s Heroes is reduced to its bare elements. In the orchestra’s hands it becomes a contemplation on the original, a free improvisation from the flickering string ensemble complemented by icy droplets of melody from the harp.

The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out has similar qualities, though the substitution of an oboe for Morrissey’s voice, while beautifully played, is arguably less effective. Radiohead’s Pyramid Song fares better.

The ‘older’ music, as Le Page suggests, dovetails beautifully. François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses and a sequence from Rameau’s Les Boreades work really well, while the addition of Trish Clowes’ saxophone to Vivaldi’s music for Sleep 1 is a nice touch, her recitative sensitively done.

The cold, spidery figurations of Schubert’s Sleep Softly – a meditation on his Serenade by Le Page – cut to a robust, bluesy solo, while the Couperin segues rather nicely to Steve Reich’s Duet and Thomas Adès O Albion, a chamber-music alternative to the Enigma Variations’ Nimrod, drawn from his Arcadia string quartet.

At the close of the set, Errollyn Wallen’s Chorale contains both soothing textures and an impassioned, wordless plea, while the last of Górecki’s Three Pieces in Old Style has a moving simplicity harking back over centuries, illustrating Le Page’s point rather nicely.

Does it all work?

Everything fits together nicely, the overall mood one of contemplation in the half light. I found the phrasing on Grieg’s Air a bit rushed at times, but that is personal taste of course – and when you’ve got round the idea of an oboe replacing Morrissey’s voice on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out you’ll agree that it works rather well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There is a great need at the moment for music to soothe the fevered brow, and Timelapse is an effective playlist fulfilling that function every time you listen to it.

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You can buy the album from the Signum Records website

On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

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You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website

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.

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

On record – Han Chen plays Thomas Adès: Piano Works (Naxos)

Han Chen (piano)

Thomas Adès
Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009)
Still Sorrowing (1992)
Darknesse Visible (1992)
Blanca Variations (2015)
Traced Overhead (1996)
Three Mazurkas (2009)
Souvenir (2018)

Naxos 8.574109 [69’43”]

Producer Han Chen
Engineer Ryan Streber

Recorded 5-7 April 2019, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Taiwanese-born and American-based pianist Han Chen releases his third album for Naxos, bringing together almost all the works for solo piano by Thomas Adès (b1971) in readings that depart – sometimes markedly – from earlier practice and are the more impressive for it.

What’s the music like?

Adès’s piano music falls into three well defined phases. Premiered at the London recital that launched his wider career, Still Sorrowing draws on Dowland in a sustained rumination with ingenious use of the keyboard (is Blue-Tack still being used to dampen the middle register?). Darknesse Visible is more directly a Dowland paraphrase, its pianism highly demonstrative in its range of textures and dynamics. An early culmination is marked by Traced Overhead – its three (progressively longer) sections heading from the spiralling upward motion of Sursum, via the animation of Aetheria, to the gradual ascent of Chori whose heightened eloquence is fatefully undermined by its plunging descent near the close. Understandable that Adès then eschewed the piano medium (and largely avoided public performance) for more than a decade.

His return came from a typically unexpected angle. Among the most significant operas this past quarter-century, Powder Her Face might not have obvious pianistic potential, but Adès proved otherwise with a Concert Paraphrase which realigns several musical highlights into a four-part sequence given continuity by the ingenuity with which underlying dance measures merge into and out of each other. Those for whom its theatricality is all may be nonplussed, yet the essentially tragic essence behind the opera’s glittering façade is conveyed even more keenly through such abstract terms. No less ingenious, the Three Mazurkas refashion a genre most associated with Chopin and Szymanowski into music that recalls the études of Ligeti in their technical finesse and those expressive slights of hand capricious and affecting by turns.

Equally modest in their formal dimensions, the most recent two pieces could hardly be more contrasted in content. A test-piece for the 2016 Clara Haskill Competition, Blanca Variations takes a brief piece from Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel as basis for a study in highly intricate and dextrous pianism. Taken from his score for the film Colette, where it provides a haunting backdrop to the end-credits, Souvenir emerges as a discreet if potent homage to the tradition of French piano music through its slow waltz motion where inference becomes all.

Does it all work?

Yes, even though there are occasions when Adès’s consummate technique risks becoming its own justification. All credit, then to Han Chen (already with excellent releases of Liszt and Rubenstein on Naxos) for ensuring that surface allure is always at the service of an engaged and engaging musical expression. Most of these works have been recorded by the composer, several by numerous other pianists, but Chen clearly has an approach which enables him to render the music very much his own way – extending and enriching its potential accordingly.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound has clarity and definition without seeming clinical, and there are informative booklet notes by Paul Conway. One recent short piece (Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel) has not been included, but it hardly detracts from the qualities of this release overall.

Listen

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

Read

For further information on Thomas Adès visit the composer’s website