Extraordinary Adès festival launch from the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Nicholas Collon

Thomas Adés photographed by © Marco Borggreve

On Friday, teaming up with Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon,the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra augured the third rendition of its biennial festival, a key musical event in autumnal Helsinki. Following festivals devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven and Magnus Lindberg, its latest incarnation focuses on the exquisite musical universe of Thomas Adès.

In the course of three orchestral concerts and one chamber music event, the two-week festival is to provide cross-sections of both the Adès oeuvre as well as his multiple rôles as composer, conductor, pianist and teacher; the last mentioned manifesting itself as Adès conducts the music of Francisco Coll, his only pupil to-date, as a part of the closing programme ahead on 29 October.

Alongside Adès and Coll, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Sibelius, Leoš Janáček, György Kurtág and Henry Purcell all appear in the festival programmes as well, providing roots and context for the British composer’s spellbinding catalogue of works.

For the Friday evening concert, the FRSO and Collon had devised a wonderful opening playlist, saluting both Adès and Stravinsky, the two key composers of the orchestra’s 2020/2021 season. The first half brought together two of Adès’s recent reworkings of his own music, namely Hotel Suite from Powder Her Face (1995/2018) for large orchestra and Lieux retrouvés (2009/2016) for cello and small orchestra.

The five-movement Hotel Suite is the latest of Adès’s three concert adaptations from his first opera, Powder Her Face (1995). Rescored for large symphony orchestra, the 2018 suite is a twenty-minute affair, comprising of Overture, Scene with Song, Wedding March, Waltz and Finale. In its instrumental retelling of the life and times of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, the suite brings together several musical strata, echoing the sonic narratives of Berg’s Lulu (1929-35) and Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (1910-11) as well as multiple popular idioms, while ever maintaining its ingeniously Adèsian flavor.

In the Hotel Suite, the opera’s original, fifteen-player chamber setup is re-invented in sparkling symphonic guise with terrific sonorous imagination, juxtaposing the comic with the tragic and the polished with the vulgar into tremendously vivid and engaging orchestral dramaturgy, one abundant with delirium and distortion. Adès’s virtuosic textures and jolty rhythms call forth top-class musicianship, both in terms of technique and instrumental theatre.

With Collon at the helm, the FRSO delivered an extraordinary outing for the Hotel Suite. Bursting in action from bar one, the orchestra demonstrated exemplary reactivity and rhythmic acuteness throughout the suite, while maintaining admirable sensitivity to those split-second mood swings, occurring in harmony, rhythm and texture alike. Be it angular or suave, Adès’s orchestral fabric was laid out with marvellous musical invention by the FRSO and Collon, yielding to a gorgeous take, one luckily preserved by microphones for a forthcoming CD release.

One could hardly imagine a piece by Adès more different from the Hotel Suite than the luminously Proustian Lieux retrouvés (2009/2016), a four-movement concertino for cello and a small orchestra of circa thirty players. Originally written as a duo for cello and piano, Lieux retrouvés was premiered at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival by Adès and Steven Isserlis, who also gave the first performance of the orchestral version seven years later.

Adès’s orchestral version retains the cello part of the original, while recasting the piano textures for an ensemble of solo winds and brass, apart from two flutes, harp, piano, celesta, alongside an extended percussion section as well as fourteen string players. Fascinatingly, Adès’s sublime orchestration seems not to bear any evidence of the piano original, but is conceived with utmost idiomaticity and impeccable sense of colour.

If not directly programmatic, the four-movement score is openly dramatic, with each of the four movements telling its own little tale, as indicated by the titles. The opening movement, Les eaux, is based on recurring iterations of rippling textures, with mounting intensity, in the manner of the interplay between light and water, propelled by gusts of wind.

The soloist launches the scherzo with an extended pizzicato passage, eventually joined by solo horn, harp and strings. Titled La montaigne, the movement’s evokes an image of a solitary figure ascending a mountain slope, treading a long and winding path, with occasional missteps and sideslips along the way. The airy coda gazes briefly into the open, before the movement is brought to its abrupt close.

The slow movement, Les champs, inhabits a magical realm of dream-like weightlessness. Barely audible, the solo line transcends beyond the physical world, as if emerging from the very air itself. Embellished with the most refined orchestral accompaniment, Les champs is pure enchantment.

The closing movement brings forth a swift change in mood, as the soloist and the ensemble are engaged in surreal Cancan macabre. Another dreamscape, perhaps, the music bears distorted allusions to Offenbach, while dancing away in its phantasmagoriac setting worthy of Ravel’s dark-hued musical imagination.

A dazzling performance from the FRSO Principal Cello Tomas Nuñez and his fellow musicians under Collon, Lieux retrouvés was seventeen minutes of pure sonic charm. Spellbinding and evocative, each the four tableaux unfolded with utmost expressivity, delicacy and wit, giving rise to an unforgettable sonic journey. The solo part and the orchestral accompaniment were ever fine-tuned to one another, employing their full dynamic scale with exemplary sensitivity and commitment. Another recorded affair, Lieux retrouvés will most likely become the highlight of the FRSO’s forthcoming Adès album.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre on Friday. © Jari Kallio

Following the intermission, Collon and the orchestra resumed their season-long Stravinsky series with their finest joint venture by far, a resplendent account of the composer’s ground-breaking ballet score, The Firebird (l’Oiseau de feu, 1909-10). Written for a large orchestra of glimmering colour and astounding fairy-tale enchantment, Stravinsky’s ballet in two scenes is one of his most extended orchestral works, abundant with symphonic technicolor, rooted in quasi-cinematic instrumental narrative.

As described in the original program note for the 1910 premiere by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Firebird accounts the tale of Ivan Tsarevitch, who sees a marvellous bird of flaming gold. He chases it, but only succeeds in snatching one of its glittering feathers. The chase takes him into the domain of Kastchéï the Immortal, the formidable demi-god who attempts to capture him and turn him to stone; a fate already befallen to many princes and knights. The Firebird arrives, breaking the spell and abolishing Kastchéï’s dominion. Ivan Tsarevitch and the other captive heroes are set free, alongside the thirteen princesses. Concluding the ballet, a coronation scene of special magnificence brings the tale to its resplendent close.

The scenario provided Stravinsky with a creative impetus hitherto unparalleled in his output. The music comes into being with dark-hued rumble from the strings, out of which the first melodic shapes emerge in the bassoons. Gradually joined by the full orchestra of triple winds and brass, full strings, three harps and a large array of percussion, the music is awash with fabulous melodies, clad in lush harmonies and glistening textures.

Halfway through the first scene, Stravinsky introduces splendid offstage effects, as three trumpets herald the break of dawn. Joined by Wagner tubas, further surround sound is provided, yielding to an immersive sonic effect. The dreamlike realm is turned into nightmare with the appearance of Kastchéï, whose ominous presence finally breaks into an earth-shaking Danse infernale, followed by the unique musical standstill of Berceuse.

Following Kastchéï’s final defeat, the music is awaken in its full radiance in the concluding scene, based on a single hymn tune and zenithing in an orchestral rejoicing of tremendous sonic power, with the full orchestra augmented with the closing contributions from the offstage brass.

A powerhouse performance of utmost vividness and sonic glory from the FRSO and Collon, this was a Firebird to remember. Awash with incredible solo contributions from the orchestra’s marvellous principals, including, most notably, the ever-immaculately shaped horn solos delivered by Jukka Harju, Stravinsky’s score was beautifully served by the orchestra, both onstage and offstage, yielding to an absolutely ravishing realization of the ballet’s brilliant musical arch.

The remarkable evening was followed by a wonderfully contemplative afterparty, as the FRSO string players Petri Aarnio, Jukka Pohjola, Tommi Aalto and Tuomas Lehto treated the late-night audience with a beautiful outing of Adès’s The Four Quarters (2010) for string quartet. Inspired by Camille Corot’s paintings, Adès’s four movements, Nightfalls, Morning Dew, Days and The Twenty-fifth Hour constitute a cycle of moods and textures, where repetition and gradual transformation are joined into engaging musical narratives.

The long shadows of the opening movement give away to the swift pizzicati of the scherzo, followed, in turn, by the oscillating, breath-like patterns of the slow movement. In the finale, written in 25/16 time, musical gestures from the three previous movements are fused together into textures defying the sense of time and space.

An apt conclusion for the most rewarding evening, the captivating performance of The Four Quarters came off as the perfect afterthought, priming the listeners for things to come over the next festival concerts.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Nicholas Collon, conductor

Tomas Nuñez, cello

Thomas Adès: Hotel Suite from Powder Her Face (1995/2018) for large orchestra

Thomas Adès: Lieux retrouvés (2009/2016) for cello and small orchestra

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (1909-10) – Ballet in two scenes

Thomas Adès: The Four Quarters (2010) for string quartet

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 15 October 2021, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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