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Thomas ADÈS (b.1971)
Asyla Op.17 for orchestra (1997) [22:32]
Concerto Conciso Op.18 for piano and chamber ensemble (1997-98) [9:26]
These Premises are Alarmed Op.16 for large orchestra (1996) [3:56]
Chamber Symphony Op.2 for fifteen players (1990) [14:14]
…and all shall be well Op.10 for orchestra (1993) [10:28]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Opp. 2, 18)
Simon Rattle (conductor Asyla), Thomas Ades (piano/ conductor rest)
rec. live Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 29-30 August 1998 (Op.17), CBSO Centre, Birmingham, Oct. 1998 (Opp.2, 18); Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, October, November 1998 (Opp. 10, 16)
EMI CLASSICS 5034042 [61:10]

This is one of the discs that really brought the music of Thomas Adès to a wider public, showcasing his phenomenal talents as composer, pianist and conductor. Its reissue at lower mid-price is to be welcomed. Since most of these works were recorded, his international profile has continued to rise and remain strong, though I now sense something of a ‘plateau’. It will be interesting to follow his developmental path.
Not everyone has been totally convinced by Adès’s youthful superstardom, and some critics - notably American - have been fond of knocking what they perceive as a rather flashy, note-oriented but ultimately empty musical arsenal. I confess to always being a fan, but then as I’ve always liked rich, kaleidoscopic but traditional use of the orchestra, I suppose I would respond positively.
The piece that may divide us most strongly is probably Asyla, his 23-minute symphony-in-all-but-name. It’s a work that Simon Rattle clearly enjoyed introducing to the public in 1997 and which he has continued to champion, even in Berlin. Ever since I heard the premiere, I’ve enjoyed the mixture of traditional, even romantic, use of the orchestra laced with thoroughly modern gestures. Those jazzy trumpet howls in the first movement (3:15) strike me as Turnage-influenced – think Three Screaming Popes – and how Rattle must have loved the colourful battery of percussion, from the Mahlerian cowbells that open the piece through to the Cage-like detuned upright piano, which adds an almost surreal quality to the proceedings. The title is deliberately ambiguous, Asyla being the plural of asylum but containing the multiple meanings of ‘refuge’, ‘sanctuary’ or ‘madhouse’, thus allowing Adès to run the gamut of emotions and superimpose a variety of textures. Some critics found it empty and somewhat pretentious; I hear only a vibrant, colourful orchestral showpiece in the grand tradition, especially in this superbly graded performance from Rattle and his Birmingham band.
The other winner for me is the Chamber Concerto, a wild and wacky piece that echoes the models of Schoenberg and John Adams. It’s a brilliantly exuberant Op.2, real young man’s music, but a young man confident enough to have tango rhythms and bluesy walking bass lines rub shoulders with another Cageian prepared piano and even a wine bottle tuned to D. I would concede that some passages are overly intricate, rather as if Adès is determined to show the Ferneyhough followers that he can write anything as complex as them, when actually there’s no need. But the overall impression is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the craft of writing energetic music that wants to make you sit up and take notice.
The same goes for These Premises are Alarmed, written for the Halle’s inaugural concert in its new Bridgewater home in 1996. Again it’s a real showpiece, short in length but very big in gesture and designed to tax even the best of players. As with other pieces, one can clearly detect the influences, which here strike me as Tippett and Knussen, but the whole package is so brilliantly witty and confident that it’s hard not to like.
The Concerto Conciso is effectively a mini piano concerto, spare and sparse as Stravinsky but with a wry smile on its face, especially the last movement ‘brawl’ – again with various ancient and modern meanings – which is stopped only when the soloist snaps the keyboard lid shut.
…but all shall be well takes its title from Eliot but alludes musically to Britten - another pervading influence. It’s the most subtle and atmospheric work here, with the large orchestra used with the utmost refinement and imagination. Adès has called the piece a ‘consolation for orchestra’, and at the end wisps of Liszt can be detected, but far from cribbing anyone, Adès throughout is not only unafraid to acknowledge the musical past, but positively glories in it.
Performances are exemplary and the recording is as good as it ever was. Andrew Porter’s note is informative if a touch deferential, but if you don’t have this disc, its new cheaper reissue gives you no excuses.
Tony Haywood


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