A feast of discovery – Thomas Adès’ Piano Concerto gets its European premiere in Leipzig


Conducting the Gewandhausorchester in this weeks concerts, Thomas Adès had devised a marvellously imaginative programme for his Leipzig appearance, including the European premiere of his Piano Concerto (2018), written for Kirill Gerstein, who gave the first performance in Boston in early March.

Appearing as soloist in the Leipzig performances too, Gerstein is a fabulous artist, whose repertoire extends from best-loved classics to gorgeous rarities, such as the massive Busoni concerto. In this respect, he is quite the ideal soloist for the new Adès piece, which pays homage to the concerto tradition, while adventuring into fascinating uncharted territories.

Following Concerto Conciso (1997) and In Seven Days (2008), the new Piano Concerto is, actually, Adès’ third piece in the medium, though the first one to actually bear the title of a concerto. Cast in three movements and employing the fast-slow-fast structural outline, the piece is true to its title, a full-blooded virtuoso piece, based on a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra.

And what an endlessly fascinating and compelling dialogue it is. The outer movements feast with Nancarrowesque rhythms and riveting instrumental colour, provided by Adès’ impeccable craft for orchestration. On the surface, one can spot family resemblance to Liszt and Ravel, among others, yet the writing is ever unmistakably Adèsian.

The opening movement is set in motion by a timpani stroke, followed by the solo piano. The strings and woodwind join, leading to the first tutti passage. There is instantly catching groove in the music, commanding the listener’s undivided attention. The movement unravels in ever-shifting soundscapes, including a delightful passage featuring solo marimba and castanets.

A sparkling cadenza leads to the closing section of the movement, with the full ensemble engaged in a sonic whirlwind, ending with a bang.

The slow second movement is a perfect gem, clad in translucent harmonic colour, fusing tuned gongs together with the solo line, giving rise to whole new spheres of sound, enriched by the hue of a suspended cymbal. The movement is rooted in intricate intensity, resulting in a ravishing musical journey, providing splendid contrast to the outer movements.

In the finale, gorgeous flow of energy in unleashed into a labyrinth of musical tensions, to an enchanting effect. Halfway through the movement, the music comes to a brief standstill, before heading to its breathtaking conclusion.

The premiere performance, with the dedicatee on the keyboard and the composer on the podium, was an outstanding event. Gerstein’s mastery over the wonderfully demanding solo part was truly amazing, and the Gewandhausorchester had absorbed Adès’ equally challenging orchestral writing to the bone. With the composer at the helm, the sound was carefully balanced, resulting in an admirable transparency and detail.

With numerous further performances from Los Angeles to Helsinki already scheduled, one can safely assume that the new Adès concerto will, deservedly, have a firm place in the repertoire.

Interestingly, the Beethoven overtures seem to fall into two categories, the (over)performed and the rare ones. Among the latter horde of treasures, the brilliant Zur Namensfeier (Name Day Overture, 1814-15) is one of the least performed. At Gewandhaus, it was last heard ten years ago in a series of concerts conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and subsequently released on CD by Decca.

Given its rarity and sheer musical quality, Zur Namensfeier was a most delightful choice for a concert opener by Adès and the orchestra. Though originally intended for a performance on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, the name day of the emperor Franz I, in October 1814, Beethoven didn’t finish the score until the following year, with the first performance eventually taking place on Christmas Day 1815.

Written in C major, the overture is a six-minute burst of sonic energy at its most Beethovenian. Pronounced tutti chords, riveting horn parts, dexterous strings and airy winds all come together into a jubilant whole. The orchestra and Adès had a ball with the score, ringing out its almost violently joyous textures with vigour and commitment.

Alongside the Beethoven overture, there was another rarity par excellence featured in the programme, namely Liszt’s 1857 symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns). Inspired by Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s fresco, and scored for a large orchestra and organ, Hunnenschlacht is an absolutely ravishing piece of symphonic story-telling.

Hunnenschlacht opens with muted strings, joined by winds and horn-calls, as the armies gather for battle. The tension builds, as the forces meet on the field and the battle is launched. After the first orchestral climax, the organ enters, as the souls of the fallen transcend into heaven.

Yet, while ascending, the fierce souls continue their battle, leading to a sequence for full orchestra and organ. Bursting with energy and celestial spledour, the music is brought to its massive conclusion with an earth-shaking final chord for brass and organ.

A ravishning performance by Adès and the Gewandhausorchester, with marvellously paced sonic architecture and formidable balance. The fierce beauty of the music was carried out to the fullest, with Liszt outdoing the CGI-driven battle scenes of contemporary cinema with flying colours.

The evening concluded with another battlefield-inspired piece, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45). For Stravinsky, the news of allied forces advancing to defeat Hitler in the spring of 1945 provided the impetus for the upbeat finale of the symphony.

In the Stravinsky oeuvre, the word symphony is attributed to the titles of five works, beginning with his opus one, the Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired Symphony in E flat (1905-07/1913). With his Debussy memorial, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), the title was used in somewhat different sense, and thus it wasn’t until the 1930s that Stravinsky picked up symphonic writing again with Symphony of Psalms (1930) and Symphony in C (1938-40).

In all his symphonies, Stravinsky steps aside from the Mahlerian path of symphony as an all-embracing sounding universe and employs a more restricted, yet ever fascinating means of expression. With each of the symphonies, Stravinsky re-invents himself in most splendid manner.

Symphony in Three Movements is scored for a large orchestra, including piano à la Petrushka (1910-11), which he came to revise soon  after finishing the symphony. The first movement is a feast of propulsive rhythms and tricky accents, clad in brilliant orchestral hue. With Adès, the Gewandhausorchester provided sharp rhythms, clear textures and that ballet-like flow, ever essential to the music. Eloquently phrased melodic lines arose from the orchestral fabric, to a stunning effect.


In the subtle second movement, fabulously performed by the orchestra, intricate dialogue between the harp, and the wind soli takes prominence, with the strings providing a gently rocking accompaniment. The music permutates through various landscapes, occasionally predating Bernard Herrmann’s classic scores for Hitchcock.

A short interlude leads to the upbeat finale, rooted in kinetic energy, leading to flamboyant tutti bursts, alternating with endlessly imaginative chamber-like passages. As the movement proceeds, the pace mounts and the symphony concludes with a vibrant coda for full orchestra.

Adès and the orchestra embraced the finale with admirable energy, providing an outstanding conclusion to an evening of discovery and delight. A case in point of imaginative programming.



Thomas Adès, conductor


Kirill Gerstein, piano


Ludwig van Beethoven: Zur Namensfeier Overture, Op. 114 (1814-15)

Thomas Adès: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018, European premiere)

Franz Liszt: Hunnenschlacht, Symphonic Poem No. 11, S 105 (1857)

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45)


Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Thursday 25 April 2019, 8 pm


© Jari Kallio

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