Thomas Adès at 50 with the LSO and Kirill Gerstein – A birthday party to cherish

Thomas Adès conducting his fiftieth birthday concert sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra at the LSO St Lukes on 6 March 2021. © Courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra

What exactly is time? While watching Thomas Adès conduct his fiftieth birthday concert with the London Symphony Orchestra on YouTube, I found myself pondering this multi-layered question over and over, from various perspectives.

Birthdays, be they one’s own or somebody else’s, provide natural starting points for such pondering. In Adès’s case, I’ve been fascinated by his music ever since my student days. Being of the same age, roughly, following the dazzling evolution of his musical imagination has also provided a chance to reflect one’s own maturation, so to speak.

While it wold be somewhat preposterous of me to suggest some kind of simplified, generational outline here, given the wonderful diversity within the music written by all those composers born in the seventies, I cannot abstain from pointing out the very personal role Adès’s music has had in my musical life for more than twenty five years by now.

Interestingly, this sense of connectivity has also extended to those works by other composers Adès the conductor has programmed alongside his own music. Over the years, I’ve found his approach to the music of Jean Sibelius particularly appealing. To point out just one example, I cannot recall hearing a more compelling take on Tapiola (1926) than the one from October 2018, with Adès’s conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre.

Therefore, I was ever so delighted to find Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 in d minor (1918-23) included in Adès’s birthday concert programme. Given the LSO’s long-standing relationship with Sibelius’s music, extending from those 1932 premiere recordings with Robert Kajanus all the way to the milestone performances with Sir Colin Davis and Sir Simon Rattle over more recent years, the meeting of minds with Adès and the orchestra naturally evoked some very high expectations.

Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony is, undoubtably, one of the most extraordinary forays into the genre. Conceived as dark pastoral, the symphony is something really unique, even on Sibelius’s scale. The question of time must be raised again in evaluating the symphony, for it seems to defy the laws and attributes of it.

In terms of style, the Sixth Symphony bears intriguing timelessness. While its modal harmonies and contrapuntal lines could well have been written by a Renaissance composer, the symphony also looks forward, pre-echoing the music of our times. While some of Sibelius’s writing could perhaps be labelled as impressionistic, if we must label things, in other regards, the music is quite different from, say, that of Debussy.

Scored for an orchestra of duple winds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and strings, with bass clarinet and harp added, the four-movement, thirty-minute symphony shuns away from the extended instrumental line-ups of Mahler and Strauss, without resorting into strict neoclassicism either. Again, the symphony seems to defy any simple categorisation.

The symphony opens with a sublime allegro molto moderato first movement. Delicate string lines set the music in motion in refined counterpoint. Joined by woodwinds, the introduction builds up to a tableau of immense, fleeting beauty, as if a scenery emerging from the morning mists. Clad in undiluted sonic radiance of white heat, the opening pages are sounded out with tranquil beauty by the LSO, under Adès’s apt pacing.

As the shroud of mist evaporates, the orchestral fabric is awaken into rippling whirls for strings and winds, supported by horns and, occasionally, punctuated by brass. Woven into the symphonic texture, sublimely glimmering harp and shadowy bass clarinet parts add their specific sonorities to the organic whole.

Thomas Adès and the LSO performing Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (1918-23) at the LSO St Lukes. © Courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra

A performance of extraordinary clarity and beautifully shaped phrases, the LSO and Adès take on the movement is admirably clear-cut and well shaped, resulting in a genuinely Sibelian journey. Marvellously balanced, the orchestra fabric is admirably translucent, enabling those delicate instrumental colours to stand out in full.

Marked allegretto moderato, the second movement is an enigmatic one. Neither a slow movement in the traditional sense nor mere interlude, the music seems to be both static and kinetic at the same time. A matter of perspective, perhaps, it is as if a dimly-lit forest would suddenly open in front of the listener, with its ancient trees standing still with their branches slowly rocking in the wind.

Yet the music yields way beyond the picturesque, touching the very soul with its mysterious, taciturn hue. Played with admirable simplicity and straightforwardness, the LSO and Adès let the music speak for itself, without resorting to casting too much veil over the textures. As often with Sibelius, less is indeed more.

The poco vivace scherzo zooms out from the woods, into the wide open. A quasi-cinematic image of a horse and a rider appears, setting forth in steadfast solitude. Derived from a single motivic cell, the melodic line its accompanying rhythms are reflections of each other, echoing back and forth between the instrumental groups.

A combination of sonic intensity and transparency of articulation, the third movement is given a gripping outing by Adès and the LSO. Flowing incessantly, the performance bears an aura of inevitability, as the scherzo paves the way for the finale.

Played quasi attacca, the allegro molto fourth movement picks up where the scherzo left, building up to a summer storm. With rays of sunlight flashing through the clouds swiftly whisked through the firmament by the winds, the music grows ever more vehement, until a zenith is reached. Cooling down for a subtle coda, the glimmering strings escort the symphony back to the mists from whence it first emerged.

Well conceived by Adès and the orchestra, Sibelius’s wonderful symphonic architecture was brought to sounding reality with dedication and vigour, resulting in compelling instrumental dramaturgy.

Inspired by the performance, I find the idea of Adès recording a Sibelius cycle some day quite ponderable. In any case, having the Sixth Symphony available for streaming is a happy affair.

The concept of time surfaces again in Adès’s piano-concerto-but-nameIn Seven Days (2008), heard on the second half of the programme, with Kirill Gerstein as soloist.Conceived as continuous arch in variation form, In Seven Days follows the Biblical story of Creation, manifesting itself in gorgeous musical imagery.

Capturing entire geological ages in brief but ever accurate sonic gestures, In Seven Days encompasses all eternity within its thirty-minute time-span. As with the Sibelius symphony, the music succeeds in being both tangibly descriptive and splendidly elusive at the same time, giving rise to a profoundly uplifting sonic experience.

Kirill Gerstein and the LSO performing Thomas Adès’s In Seven Days (2008) with the composer on the podium at LSO St Lukes. © Courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra

An orchestral introduction opens the first day, titled Chaos – Light – Darkness. As in Haydn’sThe Creation (1797-99), the music starts with the representation of chaos, the primordial potential of the universe to come. Following a build-up for strings and contrabassoon, the focus is shifted to the flutes. Picking up the material, the brass bring the introduction to its marvellous culmination.

The solo piano joins, echoed by percussion. Spellbinding dialogue ensues, as the musical material gradually cools down to a gorgeous, slow tableau for brass and percussion, clad in astounding orchestral colour, signalling the fulfilment of the first day.

Piano and metallic percussion take lead, as the second day is announced with Separation of Waters into the Sea and the Sky. A terrific passage of musical transformation, the musical fabric evolves into Reflection Dance; a hall of mirrors for the soloist and the orchestra, featuring some astounding percussion parts.

Earthy double basses set the soil for Land – Grass – Trees. The piano takes over, bringing forth grass. Climbing sky-high, the soloist and the orchestra summon the images of ancient trees with their branches networking into stunning raiments of green.

The fourth day takes the listener on journey across the firmament. The stars are set alight by the rippling keyboard textures, twinkling over long-held instrumental lines from the orchestra. The musical fabric grows into vehement pulsations, calling forth a radiant sunrise. A shift in mood occurs, as the piano again takes lead for some splendidly moon-lit night-music.

Muted trumpets herald the dawning of the fifth day by introducing a fugue, bringing forth the Creatures of the Sea and Sky. From the flowing waters to the soaring clouds, the living creatures are captured in lively instrumental tour-de-force by the orchestra, with commentary by the solo keyboard.

The formidable fugue segues into the piano-leadCreatures of the Land, a grippingly busy, multi-layered tableau, resolving in a wondrous, cadential passage for the soloist. Bridging into the closing Contemplation, the piano gradually falls silent, and the orchestra brings In Seven Days to its close with a brief, elegiac presentation of the main motivic cell.

A stunning performance, no less, In Seven Days gives rise to the most rejuvenating musical voyage with Gerstein, the LSO and the composer. Ever beautifully interlocked, the soloist and the orchestra convey the luminously evocative instrumental fabric with virtuosic brilliance and contemplative depth. All eternity encompassed in thirty minutes, In Seven Days defies the laws of time and space, as the soloist and the orchestra are joined in the dazzling act of creation.

A resplendent ritual, In Seven Days constitutes, at least in my ears, a sonic equivalent of J. R. R. Tolkien’s illustrious portrayal of creation in his wonderful literary myth Music of the Ainur. Paired with the Sibelius Sixth, Adès’s score seems to stem from some fascinating sound-clad realm shared with the Finnish master.

An evening of fulfilment, this is a birthday party to cherish.

London Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Adès, conductor

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1918-23)

Thomas Adès: In Seven Days (2008) for piano and orchestra

Filmed at LSO St Lukes, London on 6 March 2021

First released on the LSO YouTube channel on 28 March 2021

© Jari Kallio

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