A year after its world premiere, Thomas Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018) has become somewhat of a phenomenon. Widely performed by its dedicatee, Kirill Gerstein, with the composer conducting, the concerto has been received with enthusiasm from Boston to Leipzig and from Helsinki to Munich.
In similar vein, Adès’s tremendous 2013 tableau for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, Totentanz, premiered at the BBC Proms, has found a firm place in the repertoire, as a veritable contemporary classic.
Both works have now been preserved on disc too, with premiere recordings from Boston Symphony Hall, with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in 2018 and 2016, in conjunction with concert performances conducted by Adès, as a part of his position as Deborah and Philip Edmundson Artistic Partnership with the BSO, the Concerto and Totentanz are both eagerly-awaited additions to the composer’s CD catalogue.
The disc opens with the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The recording is based on the world premiere performances on 7-9 March 2019. The new concerto is nothing short of a masterpiece. Cast in three movements and lasting about twenty two minutes, the piece adopts, more or less, the traditional concerto scheme.
However, within this framework, a dazzling sequence of the most imaginative musical events unravels, resulting in an absolutely enchanting, Adèsian journey.
Following Concerto Conciso (1997) and In Seven Days (2008), the new concerto is, in fact, Adès’ third foray into the medium, although the first one to actually be called as such. For the composer, the working title of the new piece was Concerto in F, which happens to be, famously, the official title of George Gershwin’s 1925 piano concerto.
On a purely music level, the concertos of Adès and Gershwin do have a lot in common. In addition to the key of F, both pieces share an ingenious rhythmic profile, clad in riveting orchestral colour, both inhabiting a realm completely idiomatic to their composers, though. In addition to Gershwin, one can sense the presence of Ravel, Bartók and Prokofiev as spiritual forefathers of the new Adès concerto.
The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is launched with a luminously kinetic maze of the opening allegrissimo movement. Here Adès sets his musical material on a fascinating trajectory, with the soloist and the orchestra traveling through a riveting series of transformations.
Within its solid structural framework, the first movement presents itself in many guises, resulting in an alluring musical landscape, with thrilling jitters. In our interview with the composer, Adès spoke about the essence of distorting the musical material, as a part of the creative process. In this respect, the opening movement of the concerto is a marvellous case in point.
There is a fabulous cadenza embedded into the first movement. As the cadenza proceeds, two horns join the soloist adding their subtle harmonic aura to the musical fabric. Joined by full orchestra, the movement closes with a sonic whirlwind.
The rhythmic drive of the allegrissimo is contrasted by the sublime central movement. Its poignant melodic material derives from the ethereal, chorale-like opening sequence. Throughout the movement, the solo piano part is woven together with tuned gongs, bass drum and tam-tam, leading to brilliant, extended sonorities.
In the finale, musical material from the first movement reappear, as the concerto goes round full circle. Clad in eloquent counterpoint, the textures build up in tension and density, until the music comes to a brief standstill in the middle of the movement. A bewitching coda ensues, to bring the concerto to its staggering close.
On the new disc, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is presented with an extraordinary performance by Gerstein and the BSO. With the composer on the podium, the ever transforming orchestral textures are unraveled with admirable clarity, clad in gorgeous sonorities.
The solo part is performed with impeccable virtuosity and profound musicality by Gerstein, resulting in a most rewarding musical experience. Adès and the orchestra are ever in accord with their soloist, providing the listener with joyously dexterous account of Adès’s spellbindingly elaborate contrapuntal textures.
In terms of engineering, the concerto is well served on disc by the DG team. Both the solo part and the orchestra are recorded with spacious clarity, with an excellent sonic focus. My only minor complaint concerns the occasionally inaudible tuned gongs in the second movement. Having said that, it must be noted that, as a whole, the recording provides a highly satisfying listening experience.
The second item on the new disc, Totentanz, paints a sonic fresco quite different from the concerto. Written in one, thirty-five-minute-movement, Totentanz builds up to a vast symphonic fresco for mezzo-soprano, baritone and a large orchestra. The text is derived from a fifteenth-century frieze in St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck, eventually destroyed by a British air raid in World War II.
In the course of Totentanz, Death, sung by a baritone, summons members of every category of human society to join, one by one, the last dance. With Death harvesting humans from the Pope to a baby, Totentanz assumes the form of a dialogue, with the mezzo-soprano portraying each of the doomed souls.
The score opens with a series of angular brass fanfares, each leading to a massive tutti chord, heralding the arrival of Death. Baritone voice enters, with opening sermon, stating the motto of Totentanz, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the prologue of Berg’s Lulu (1929-35).
Following the introduction, Death appears, calling the Pope to join him in the grim, perpetual final dance. Transforming into various sonic guises, the orchestra keeps the music in incessant flow, while Death proceeds his sinister journey throughout each layer of the society.
As Totentanz unfolds, the score calls the mezzo-soprano to sing a total fifteen different roles, each given their own vocal identities by Adès. In each section, the orchestra evokes images related to the character involved, be they rulers or commoners of various trades, leading to a vivid series of orchestral tableaux, as if a nightmarish version of the Mussorgsky–Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922).
As the sequences follow each other in a seamless flow, the mezzo-soprano has to with from one role to another with utmost reactivity. In contrast, the baritone part transforms within an extended arc, ranging from the opening’s gloomy declamation to the intimate, almost commiserative dialogues between Death and the maiden and, eventually, the baby.
In each case, the doomed ones are caught unprepared by Death. Each of them, despite their position in the social hierarchy, is equally inept at facing their destiny. If not in life, at least in death the human society is an equal one.
The two extraordinary soloists, baritone Mark Stone and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, covey their parts with utmost dedication and craft on the new DG album. Recorded in the course of three concert performances at Symphony Hall on 3-5 November 2016, Totentanz is a celebration of vocal art, both in terms Adès’s musical imagination and the performances of the two soloists.
Both vocal lines convey a vast cavalcade of styles and emotions, ranging from the terrible majesty of Death to the horror, irony, protest, resignation and sorrow of his victims. As the score unravels, the vocal duets are transformed from outright clashes to subtle dialogues.
The final meeting between Death and a baby is clad into the form of an elegy. Accompanied by achingly beautiful flugelhorn textures, Death invites the puzzled baby to join the others in the slowed-down round-dance. Following a gentle passage for strings and woodwinds, the music once again assumes a darker tone.
A hollow coda ensues, as both soloist utter repetitions of the word ”tanzen”, gradually fading into whispering. On the final twelve bars, the orchestral textures are stripped into skeleton-like bare grunts from contrabassoon, contaforte, percussion, piano and double basses, carrying the dance rhythm into distance.
With the composer at the helm, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gives an astonishing performance. The wealth of imagery rooted in Adès’s score is brought to life with tremendous sonorities, combined with a formidable attention to detail. In the course of Totentanz, the orchestra evokes an intricate, ever-changing fabric of rhythm, combined with astonishing imitations of the tolling of bells, massive tutti bursts and the most sublime string textures, materializing themselves on the very threshold of hearing.
The balance between the voices and the orchestra is quite ideal, with the vocal and instrumental lines blending in natural, organic manner. The orchestral sound is both transparent and aptly lush, true to the wondrous BSO tradition.
Heard in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, Adès’s tremendous score speaks now with a whole new level of acuteness. The result is, in fact, quite therapeutic.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano
Mark Stone, baritone
Thomas Adès: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)
Thomas Adès: Totentanz (2013) for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, 3-5 November 2016 (Totentanz) and 7-9 March 2018 (Concerto)
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7998 9 (2020), 1 CD
© Jari Kallio
Photo © BR / Astrid Ackermann