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Thomas ADÈS (b.1971)
America: A Prophecy, Op.19 (1999)
The Fayrfax Carol, (1997)
Fool’s Rhymes, Op.5 (1992)
January Writ (1999)
O Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin, Op.3a (1990)
The Love in Winter (1989)
Life Story, Op.8 (1998)
Cardiac Arrest (Foreman/Smyth, arr. Ades) (1995)
Les Baricades mistérieuses (Couperin, transc. Ades) (1994)
Brahms, Op.21 (2001)
Claron McFadden (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano); Robin Blaze (countertenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone); Huw Watkins (piano)
Polyphony/Stephen Layton
The Composers Ensemble
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Thomas Adès
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham (March, 2002), Temple Church, London (February, 2003) and LSO St. Luke’s, London (June and October, 2003)
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57610-2 [59’38]


Thomas Adès is certainly the man of the moment. His ascendancy from teenage prodigy of a few short years ago, to classical household name, seems complete. The timing of this compendious portrait of some of the composer’s vocal and choral works is certainly astute. His latest opus, a grand, lyrical opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, has been wowing them at Covent Garden, even making the leader columns of some broadsheets (review}, so what better time to give us more of this incredibly productive musician, even if some items have been available before. It shows beyond doubt that he was no flash-in-the-pan, and the virtuosic handling of a variety of genres is well displayed on this disc.

The title work, America: A Prophecy, was commissioned by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic as part of their ‘messages for the millennium’, for performance on the eve of 2000. Setting a couple of ancient Spanish texts that deal with themes of conquest, clash of culture and innocence destroyed, turned out to have frightening prescience. How can we listen to the strident mezzo and ghostly chorus intone such words as ‘On earth we shall burn…We shall turn to ash…weep, weep, weep, but know this well – Ash feels no pain’ and not sense the extra dimension that is now inescapable? This feeling is heightened by Adès’s edgy, nervous music that uses a colourful harmonic framework, effortlessly mixing simplicity and complexity and dressed in an instrumental garb that is recognisably the same as that of Asyla, his most assured orchestral work to date. As with much of Adès’s music, a lot is packed into a short span, in this case a mere 16 minutes, proving that with the best composers, less is more.

The choral items are equally assured, managing to sound modern yet from an established tradition. January Writ, in particular, has a beguiling harmonic delicacy that completely draws the listener in, especially in Polyphony’s gripping rendition.

All the vocal items work in their own individual, eclectic ways. The Lover in Winter is as sensuous as anything in early Berg (it reminded me at times of the Seven Early Songs, which are similarly rapturous) whilst maintaining a Tippett-like clarity. Life Story, available before on EMI’s Debut Series (before Adès’s star really rose), is, according to liner note writer Paul Griffiths, ‘a morning after, face-in-the-mirror, sobered-up reflection for soprano with two bass clarinets and string bass’. The composer’s direction for the singer to think of the late style of Billie Holiday as a model tells you the world this inhabits – a blowsy, smokily melancholic rumination on life and love. Claron McFadden’s performance is astonishing, particularly as the last time I heard her was in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen!

Adès’s manic reworking of the Madness rock classic Cardiac Arrest is just that – madness - and sounds a bit like it’s out to outdo Michael Nyman. This punchy, two minute dance scherzo is great fun, to be played loud or not at all!

The curious little finisher is entitled Brahms, and is a setting of an Alfred Brendel poem for the pianist’s 70th birthday. I think it tells us something of Adès’s ambivalence towards Brahms (along perhaps with Brendel’s), with its ghostly echoes of the composer that are not quite quotations, rather half-remembered wisps of memory. The sheer quirkiness of the text is more than matched by the setting, which sounds like Brahms filtered through Schoenberg, or possible Berg (again).

Recordings are all excellent, as are the absolutely authoritative performances. Typically readable notes from Paul Griffiths and full texts make up a highly recommendable disc of music by one of the UK’s most exciting young composers.

Tony Haywood


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