Originally issued in May 1997 and one of the clear
successes of EMI's Debut series, this disc was a major contributory
factor to Adès' success. It is still difficult to believe that
Adès was born as recently as 1971, such is the sureness of the
compositional hand at work in these pieces. Since then awards and commissions
have followed each other in bullet-like succession (he was the youngest
ever recipient of the Grawemeyer Prize for his orchestral work Asyla,
Op. 17, for example). He has acted as the Hallé's Composer-in-Residence
(which in fact resulted in Asyla, as well as The Origin of
the Harp) and he has produced an opera, Powder her Face,
of international significance. In addition, he has let his talents as
pianist and conductor develop (his solo piano disc on CDC5 57051-2 is
an impressive achievement review).
Being in possession of such enviable pianistic gifts
makes Adès the ideal interpreter of his own piano music. He makes
the complexities of Traced Overhead (1996) seem easy (other pianists
performances reveal this clearly not to be the case). Darknesse Visible,
a 'recomposing' of Dowland's In darknesse let me dwell,
likewise exhibits an astonishing variety of textures.
If I have a problem with hitching a lift on the Adès
bandwagon, it is that, despite his incredible aural imagination, his
works need to come that bit more into focus. They can appear somewhat
diffuse, despite their obvious compositional virtuosity. This is not
to say that the sonic vocabulary he draws on is mere surface tracery,
however: every single piece on this disc invites the listener to delve
deeper on each repeated hearing. It is like looking at a fascinating,
yet still somewhat imperfect, diamond.
Catch (dating from 1991), the first work on the disc,
exemplifies many characteristics of Adès' music. There is an
omnipresent energy which, when not explicit, bubbles constantly below
the surface. It is almost as if there are too many ideas bursting to
get out, and Adès feels they must somehow be crammed into ten
minutes. Abrupt juxtapositions of material, texture and tempo make for
a heady ride. Catch has a musico-dramatic element best seen and
heard (if you'll pardon the pun): a clarinet is lured on to the stage
by the other instruments, slowly but surely, until only at the end does
it take its place with the other instruments.
It hardly comes as a surprise that the capabilities of the modern piano are not enough for Adès. The Cage-like additions that characterise the sound-world of Still Sorrowing (Blu-tac, in this instance) introduce yet further variety of timbre, almost otherworldly in effect. The black, half-lit world of Under Hamelin Hill is made even more unsettling by the choice of the chamber organ, an instrument which in Adès' hands seems to be a shadow (or memory) of some larger entity.
The final piece on the disc, Life Story of 1993 (here for soprano and piano: there is also a version for soprano and small chamber ensemble) gives testament to Adès' sure sense of the dramatic. Mary Carewe is superbly gripping in her Billie Holiday-like bluesiness, narrating the tale and projecting its unsettled undercurrent. The seediness of the situation (the aftermath of a one-night stand) is tellingly portrayed.
In short, there is plenty to provoke thought here, and much to make one wonder in which this direction this composer will travel in the future.