Breath-taking Finnish premiere for Thomas Adès’s gorgeous Inferno with the composer conducting the FRSO

Thomas Adès and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra rehearsing Inferno at the Helsinki Music Centre on Tuesday. © Jari Kallio

The second installment in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Thomas Adès festival on Wednesday evening marked the composer’s return to conduct the orchestra for the first time since his memorable 2018 debut. This weeks’s programme, to be repeated on Thursday, brought together two astonishingly gripping musical journeys into the Underworld.

Written over seventy years apart from each other, the two masterful orchestral scores, Igor Sravinsky’s Orpheus (1947) and Adès’s Inferno (2019) make up a terrific programme, drawing parallels between various aspects of two fundamental (Western) visions of the Netherworld. Despite their ballet connotations, both scores lend themselves wonderfully to concertante purposes, as their joint performances resoundingly demonstrated.

Based on Dante Alighieri’s Commedia (1308-20), Adès’s Inferno is the first part of a two-hour ballet The Dante Project (2019-20), conceived in collaboration with Wayne McGregor and Tacita Dean and premiered by The Royal Ballet in London last week. Jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Inferno received its standalone concert premiere at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil on 10 May 2019, followed by further staged performances two months later.

Inferno is a forty-five-minute orchestral piece of dazzling invention and momentum. It’s instrumental narrative bears acuteness akin to that of In Seven Days (2008), Adès’s symphonic piano concerto inspired by the biblical creation myth. Cast in thirteen movements, the spellbinding score makes full use of the large orchestral forces involved, resulting in riveting musical venture into the surreal darkness and whirl of the nine circles of Hell, as envisioned by Dante. In musical terms, Inferno constitutes a series of fascinating continuums between the sounding realms of Adès and those of Franz Liszt.

”With this ballet, I felt it would be interesting to do some sort of a costume thing, with Liszt’s music. Sometimes it is pure Liszt, orchestrated by me, that’s one extreme. Sometimes it is pure me, completely made up by me, that’s the other extreme. And there’s all the bits in between, where it is almost like you would be performing a piece by Liszt and start doing a sort of fantasia or improvised cadenza, and turn it into something else. These are not obvious changes. They’re quite eerie, and I like this effect”, Adès pondered in our Adventures in Music interview in the spring of 2019, only days after the composer had finished the score.

In Adès’s imagination, Liszt was assigned the rôle of Virgil, guiding his fellow composer through the uttermost depths of Hell, as documented in the riveting score of Inferno. Throughout its ravishing musical arch, the ear picks echoes of the Lizst oeuvre, some ringing out loud and clear, others emerging as flickering apparitions shrouded in sulphurous fumes.

Scored for triple winds doubling piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon, full brass, harp, piano, timpani, four percussionists and strings, Inferno opens with a tour-de-force introduction for full orchestra, auguring the journey into the Netherworld under the title of Abandon Hope. The symphonic vehemence carries over to the the second section, The Selfish, depicting the egoistic bystanders, doomed to their endless run with banners, incessantly stung by wasps.

Adès’s tremendous orchestral storm cools down for the arrival of the The Ferryman, escorting Dante and Virgil from the outskirts to the Hell proper, in a splendidly lugubrious sequence of almost pure Liszt, gorgeously scored for solo cor anglais, accompanied by harp and strings; a dark-hued meditation inhabiting a musical realm not far removed from Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela (1896/1897/1900). As the journey proceeds, more instruments join the fabric, and the music grows ever more distorted, until the boat lands on the eerie shores of Limbo.

A wondrously crafted Pavane ensues, with its opening pages scored as a gracious lament for strings and harp. As the iterations mount, the sequence grows more and more unstable, until a brief cadenza for horns and bass brum bridges the music into the endless whirlwind of Paolo and Francesca, a pivotal scene, famously revisited by Tchaikovsky in his symphonic fantasy Francesca da Rimini (1876). Engaged in relentless dance, the orchestra delivers an enthralling, kinetic tableau of gripping intensity, which then segues into a series of ingeniously grotesque musical imagery depicting the torments of The Gluttons caught in slime, The Suicides turned to trees and mauled by harpies, as well as The Deviants crawling across burning sand.

Yet, all of Adès’s musical portraits are multi-layered, and for each of the circles of Hell, several emotional responses are found within the orchestral fabric. In Gluttons, the scene is set with ominous pianissimo passage dominated by muted brass and low strings, joined by piano clusters. Out of the introduction, an extended musical commentary is drawn, eventually fading into nothingness with bell-like farewell from the harp.

Opening The Suicides, thirty two bars of biting pulsations in 4/4 time are heard, leading into a wailing orchestral dialogue of shattering poignancy, paving the way for the red-heated intensity of The Deviants. Oscillating between ¾, 5/4 and 2/2, the section builds up to an anguished dancescape, one coloured by washboards, wooden spatulas and castanets.

One of the most imaginative sequences is devised for The Fortune-tellers, flatterers and critics, walking in two directions, their heads bent back, tears running down between their buttocks. As suggested by the imagery, the orchestral fabric constitutes a daunting hall of mirrors, eventually broken into fragments on the closing pages.

Instrumental bravura of the grotesque kind ensues, as the full orchestra launches into Pope’s Adagio. Perhaps the most overtly political commentary of Inferno, the Adagio delivers the verdict for the vainglorious potentates, who are stuffed head first down a hole, one on the top of the other. Over the seven centuries between Dante’s time and ours, the scenery has, sadly, lost none of its topicality.

A movement of heavy, dragging musical patterns is conceived for The Hypocrites, accompanying their weighed down gait in coats of lead. Their toil is momentarily broken by a piercingly painful clarinet cadenza, followed by a bleak orchestral coda.

Introduced with a trumpet fanfare, Adès has conceived an aptly savage parade for The Thieves. In the penultimate section, an over-the-top, lopsided march is trotted out by full orchestra, providing a befittingly surreal soundtrack for their recurring transformations into giant lizards and back again into thieves. Brilliantly blatant, the sonic blast bears notable resemblance with the extraordinary orchestral irony fostered by Shostakovich. However, the hellish quest is not at its end, yet.

In the thirteenth movement, Satan,the journey finally reaches the lowest circle. In his frozen imprisonment, we find Lucifer trapped in everlasting ice, with his swift angelic origins reduced to stop-motion mockery. The orchestral stasis is broken by disjointed utterances of hollow brass chords, with their rumour fading into the distance as Dante and Virgil leave Hell and ascend back to the surface of the Earth. Evaporating into silence, Inferno comes to its enthralling close.

A phenomenal performance from the composer and the FRSO, the spellbinding musical narrative of Inferno was awaken in orchestral raiments of spectacular colour and breath-taking sonic power. Be it the raging otherworldly storms or the reflective passages of solitude and compassion, not to mention all the irony and wit, the orchestra delivered an outstanding rendition of Adès’s terrific score, one lauded with bravos and roaring applause, yielding to several curtain-calls for the composer.

Thomas Adès and the FRSO after a breath-taking performance of Inferno on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio

Preceding Inferno, the evening’s first half focused on the Underworld as envisioned by Igor Stravinsky. Completed in Hollywood on 23 September 1947, Orpheus is certainly one of the composer’s finest scores. Cast in three scenes and scored for an orchestra of duple winds, doubling piccolo and cor anglais, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, harp and strings, the thirty-minute ballet is a sublime, yet vividly dramatic retelling of the Greek myth of the legendary musician’s tragic quest for retrieving his wife Eurydice from the Underworld.

Stravinsky’s score opens with a deeply touching scene, depicting Orpheus’s grief over the death of Eurydice. The orchestral music revolves around a solitary, descending harp line, giving rise to an almost tactile sense of heart-wrenching grief. Although it is tempting to interpret the evocative simplicity of Stravinsky’s music as highly personal reflection of loss, alongside more universal, postwar Zeitgeist, it may still be wise to abstain from drawing such straightforward psychological assumptions between the composer and his work. In any case, the score is abundant with musical imagery of unusual connectivity and emotional depth, interwoven with echoes of Stravinsky’s earlier works, most notably Oedipus Rex (1926-27/1948).

In Orpheus, Stravinsky’s orchestral writing is ever refined and clear-cut, with the ballet’s dark-hued musical raiments displaying animated virtuosity, rooted in incessant rhythmic impetus. The composer’s timeless fusion of Neoclassical idioms and acutely cinematic, twentieth century narrative brings forth sounding realms of extraordinary vividness, such as the splendid sonic imagery evoked by the gloomy trombone and trumpet lines over tremolo strings, accompanying Orpheus and The Angel of Death to the gates of the Underworld on the closing page of the first scene, or the agitated ensemble scoring introducing the second scene and the protagonist’s interactions with the Furies, to point out just a couple of instantly memorable examples.

There are brief moments of consolation in the score, brought forth by Orpheus’s reunion with Eurydice. However, their fleeting bliss is cut short, as the musical narrative plunges into its dolorous conclusion, as Orpheus is to face his utter ruin. In the concluding scene, an apotheosis ensues, with Apollo picking up the fallen hero’s lyre and sounding out an inverted version of the opening music, as the sounding memory of Orpheus transcends into Mount Olympus.

An absorbing performance from the FRSO under Adès, Orpheus was given a refined, yet ever intense outing. The overall narrative was eloquently paced, with Stravinsky’s gripping musical arch clad in vivid instrumental detail. With Adès at the helm, the musical lines were beautifully balanced throughout, providing the FRSO musicians a gratifying setting to demonstrate their talent for sonic story-telling.

Bringing together two very different journeys into the Underworld, the evening was an absolute feast of orchestral narratives, abundant with drama and finesse.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Adès, conductor

Igor Stravinsky: Orpheus (1947) – Ballet in three scenes

Thomas Adès: Inferno (2019) for orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland

Wednesday 20 October 2021, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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