Chamber music afternoon at the highest level with Thomas Adès, Jenny Carlstedt and the FRSO soloists

Thomas Adès and mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt performing the songs of Purcell and Stravinsky at the Helsinki Music Centre on Sunday. © Jari Kallio

The third concert in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Thomas Adès festival series on Sunday afternoon presented the Helsinki Music Centre audience with Adès the pianist and chamber musician, in programme that could hardly be bettered in terms of innovation and continuity. The first half featured a splendid selection of songs by Henry Purcell and Igor Stravinsky, sung by the marvellous mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt, whereas the second half brought together an Adès world premiere, György Kurtág’s tribute to Robert Schumann as well as Leoš Janáček’s Concertino for piano and ensemble, constituting, in other words, an afternoon of rare gems.

The afternoon journey began in the Purcell realm, in the guise of Four Songs realised by Adès for voice and piano in 2012 and 2017. In this selection, two passacaglias, By Beauteous Softness from Now Does the Glorious Day Appear (1689), the first of Purcell’s Odes celebrating the birthday of Queen Mary and An Evening Hymn (1688), the famously atmospheric setting from Harmonia Sacra, frame two Ariel songs from The Tempest, William Shakespeare’s 1610-11 play, which also served as the subject for Adès’s second opera, written in 2003.

The most lovely selection of solemn intimacy, playfulness, tranquil and contemplation, each of the four songs evoked a rich kaleidoscope of moods and imagery. The vocal lines were conveyed with reflective beauty by Carlstedt, with her readings endorsed by Adès’s ever-sensitive keyboard accompaniment. A blissful oasis of gorgeously set texts, Four Songs yielded to musical enchantment at the highest level.

Picking up where Purcell’s The Tempest settings left, Igor Stravinsky’s Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1953) for or mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet and viola bridged the Baroque and the Modernist realms together with perfect insight. Preceded by two large-scale English settings in the Stravinsky oeuvre, The Rake’s Progress (1948-51) and Cantata (1951-52), the Shakespeare Songs come off as an intimate afterthought.

Stravinsky’s chosen texts feature selections from the Sonnets, The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost, all set in refined musical gestures, somwhat akin to those of late Webern, although conceived in thoroughly Straviskyan, quasi-pointillist manner. Ever evocative and skillfully detailed, the vocal lines and the instrumental accompaniment are awash with sensitivity and imagination, virtues wholeheartedly cherished by Carlstedt and the FRSO musicians, flutist Yuki Koyama, clarinetist Christoffer Sundquist and violist Ezra Woo, under Adès’s nuanced direction.

A sublime performance, abundant with nuanced colour, Three Songs from William Shakespeare brought together the contemplative and the picturesque in the most admirable manner. In similar vein, Stravinsky’s marvellously languid, cat-like settings of Berceuses du chat (1915) for contralto and three clarinets, picked up by Sundquist, Fàtima Boix Cantó and Giuseppe Gentile,were clad in adorable sonic raiments, calling forth a series of candle-lit images of extraordinary, snapshot beauty.

Stravinsky’s late setting for similar line-up, Elegy for JFK (1964), a heartfelt, private lament based on a short text by W. H. Auden, is probably the finest among the many musical pieces written in response to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The text comprises of four haiku-like verses, each set to music based on permutations of a twelve-tone row by Stravinsky, closing with a repeat of the first verse, giving rise to an ABA overall scheme. Conceived with dark-hued dignity, the Elegy is a deeply moving affair, especially when performed with such detail and commitment as Carlstedt and the FRSO clarinetists with Adès.

Closing the first half, Carlstedt and Adès gave an absolutely enchanting account of Stravinsky’s very last musical composition, the playful masterstroke The Own and the Pussy-cat (1966). Dedicated to Vera de Bosset Stravinsky, the dancer and artist who became the composer’s second wife in 1940, the song is an absolutely charming twelve-tone setting of Edward Lear’s nonsense poem. Conceived for voice and a one-voice piano part doubled at the octave, The Owl and the Pussy-cat was composed between the rehearsals and recording sessions for Requiem Canticles (1966), conducted by Robert Craft and supervised by Stravinsky.

Despite its seemingly clear-cut surface, the little song is, in fact, derived from the utmost elaborate twelve-tone scheme. Beautifully served by witty performance, Stravinsky’s joyfully surreal setting was pure aural delight.

Ezra Woo, Thomas Adès and Christoffer Sundqvist premiering Adès’s Three Berceuses from ‘The Exterminating Angel (2021) at the Helsinki Music Centre. © Jari Kallio

The second half of the afternoon opened with the world premiere of Adès’s Three Berceuses from ’The Exterminating Angel’ (2021) for viola, clarinet and piano. Derived from Adès’s third opera, Three Berceuses marks the composer’s fifth concertante adaptation from his original 2015-16 score, preceded by instrumental settings for solo piano as well as viola and piano, plus an orchestral symphony.

Based on musical material from the first and third acts of the Buñuel-inspired opera, Three Berceuses constitute an enthralling nocturnal progression, embedded in a dramatic arch yielding from the melancholic to the phantasmagorical. As the crepuscular sequence proceeds, the musical material becomes more and more derailed and unstable, culminating in a macabre sonic burst at the end of the second Berceuse, heralding the joint suicide of the opera’s young lovers, Eduardo and Beatriz. Fragmentary and disjointed, the third Berceuse wanders through a sounding hall of mirrors in a nightmarish sequence of almost tactile intensity, reworked from the music associated with the delirious mental imagery of Leonora, portrayed by Anne Sofie von Otter in the Salzburg Festival premiere production of the opera.

Conceived with narrative mastery worthy of Ravel, Three Berceuses were given a gripping first outing by Ezra Woo and Christoffer Sundquist on viola and clarinet, with the composer joining them at the keyboard. Musical story-telling par excellence, the vigorous performance kept the audiences at the edge of their seats throughout the three-movement arch.

Written for similar instrumental line-up, with bass drum added, György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch., op. 15d had a prolonged genesis. The composer’s first sketches date back to the mid seventies, whereas the finishing touches were put in fifteen years later in 1990. As suggested by its title, the six-movement work pays its respects to Robert Schumann, as seen through a characteristically Kurtágian prism.

While first five movements are fleetingly brief and aphoristic, the sixth contains more extended musical narrative, yielding to an ingeniously balanced sonic curve. Performed with ravishing instrumental imagination from the clarinet’s opening scale pattern to the closing bass drum echo, Hommage à R. Sch. was musical meditation at its finest.

Concluding the evening, Leoš Janáček’s Concertino (1925) for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon was heard in extraordinary performance by Adès and the FRSO musicians. Although written for and instrumental septet, the first two movements are, in fact, both set as spellbinding duos; an opening Moderato for piano and horn, followed by Più mosso for piano and E flat clarinet. Combining the talents of Adès, the FRSO principal horn Jukka Harju and clarinetist Fàtima Boix Cantó, the insistent musical lines within the two movements were given ingenious instrumental readings, with the full ensemble finally joining the game at the very end of the second movement.

The two kinetic movements for full ensemble, marked Con moto and Allegro, came off with dedicated music-making, resulting in an absorbing performance. Janáček’s instrumental incantations, often derived from juxtapositions of repeated patterns, were laid out with intensity and utmost musicality, providing an upbeat finale for the extraordinary musical afternoon.

Members for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Adès, piano and conductor

Jenny Carlstedt, mezzo-soprano

Henry Purcell: Four Songs realised by Thomas Adès for voice and piano (2012/2017)

Igor Stravinsky: Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1953) for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet and viola

Igor Stravinsky: Berceuses du chat (1915) for contalto and three clarinets

Igor Stravinsky: Elegy for JFK (1964) for mezzo-soprano and three clarinets

Igor Stravinsky: The Owl and the Pussy-cat (1966) for voice and piano

Thomas Adès: Three Berceuses from ’The Exterminating Angel’ (2021) for viola, clarinet and piano

György Kurtág: Hommage à R. Sch., op. 15d (1975-90) for clarinet (also bass drum), viola and piano

Leoš Janáček: Concertino (1925) for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon

Music Centre, Helsinki

Sunday 24 October 2021, 3 pm

© Jari Kallio

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