music concerts by Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
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Seen & Heard
Editor in Chief
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/
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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