Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
Tevot (2007) [22:10]
Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005) [19:59]
Three Studies from Couperin (2006) [13:03]
Overture, Waltz and Finale from Powder Her Face (2007) [10:59]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle (Tevot); Anthony Marwood (violin)
(Concerto); Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Thomas Adès (Concerto, Studies); National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Paul Daniel (Powder Her Face)
rec. 1 and 3 November 2007, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany (Tevot); 22 April 2007, Barbican Hall, London, UK (Concerto, Studies); 17 April 2009, Town Hall, Leeds, UK (Powder Her Face). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 4 57813 2 [66:43]

This is a remarkable and important disc that should cement Thomas Adès’ reputation as a leading composer of his generation and one of the main forces on the compositional scene today. If the quality of the works recorded here is sustained throughout his career, he may well be regarded as one of the century’s great composers. I have listened many times to an earlier EMI disc of the composer’s works, including the much-discussed Asyla, and immediately recognized an individual voice. However, I cannot honestly say that I really liked any of the pieces on that disc. I found them all very clever and extremely well orchestrated, but they left me cold. The works on the current CD, on the other hand, leave me with the opposite impression. They indeed sound like the Adès of before - no mistaking that - but they have a depth and immediate appeal lacking in the earlier pieces, for all their originality. 

, as Tom Service notes in the CD booklet, is a Hebrew word meaning both the Biblical ark and musical bars. Adès himself, as quoted in the booklet, describes the piece as the earth as a “spaceship that carries us through the chaos of space in safety … the idea of the ship of the world.” Tevot is in one long movement, unlike the four-part Asyla. It grabs the listener right from the beginning with its high strings and woodwinds above a chasm with the lowest instruments at the bottom - rather like Janáček’s employment of the orchestra. It is scored for a huge orchestra of 5 flutes (including piccolos and bass flute), 5 oboes (including English horn and bass oboe), 5 clarinets (including E-flat and A clarinets and contrabass clarinet), 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, a whole battery of percussion (including log drum and tuned anvils among other exotica), and the usual strings. As the work progresses from its rather static beginning it becomes lively and even violent before calming and quieting down. The music is very colorful; some have called it cinematic. Unlike much music for the cinema, however, it needs no film to accompany it. It stands entirely on its own and has much more substance than most film music. It is very communicative and its frequent lyricism is memorable. It then builds towards its spectacular conclusion, with the brass and percussion ending the work in a blaze of sunlight. At about the 20-minute mark the brilliant trumpets with high swirling strings reminded me of a similar passage in the second movement of Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Indeed, I would not at all be surprised if Janáček were a major influence on Adès, as the latter frequently programs Janáček’s piano works in his recitals. At any rate, Tevot deserves all success and should be featured on orchestral programs whenever resources allow. It almost goes without saying that this performance by the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle is all one could ask for.

The second work on the disc, the Violin Concerto, also deserves frequent exposure. While not as spectacular as Tevot, it also makes an immediate and positive impression. It is divided into the usual three movements, but each movement has a title: Rings (1), Paths (2), and Rounds (3). Here the influence would seem to be Ligeti, at least as far as the first movement is concerned. The violin’s high-lying figuration in conjunction with the accompanying winds produces a kind of perpetuum mobile that reminded me of the first movement of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. Both outer movements are circular in motion, whereas the second and longest movement is linear - thus reflecting the titles Adès has provided. The second movement begins as a chaconne and ends some ten minutes later, longer than the other movements combined. It is also the most traditional in a violinistic sense and at times projects a romanticism typical of the great violin concertos of the past. The finale balances the first movement nicely and ends the work in capricious style with a rhythmic pulse that is nigh irresistible. Adès composed the concerto for a classical-size orchestra and these same forces, unlike the large orchestra he used for Tevot. Marwood and company are not only authoritative, but also convince the listener of the approachability and even beauty of the score.

The remaining pieces on the CD, if not of the same caliber as Tevot and the Violin Concerto, are nonetheless enjoyable. The suite Adès arranged from his first opera, Powder Her Face, is a lot of fun with its sleazy references to the dance music of the 1930s. I especially liked the waltz, which sounds to me like an off-kilter version of Prokofiev’s Dance with Mandolins from his Romeo and Juliet ballet. The Studies are more than just arrangements of Couperin’s music. As Tom Service notes, Adès takes nothing away from the originals but adds to them. Each of the three studies has the same number of bars, harmonies, and rhythms of Couperin’s but is viewed as if through a twenty-first century time-warp. Again performances by Britain’s National Youth Orchestra in the Powder Her Face selections and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the Studies are excellent.

If someone needed convincing of the viability of contemporary music, I cannot think of any better place to start than this disc. There is so much being written today that sounds like recycled music of the past century or earlier, or dumbed-down to appeal to so-called crossover audiences. It is refreshing to encounter something original with substance that contains a broad appeal. The only thing one might improve upon in this recording is the sound, which is a bit on the hard, dry side. Yet, one can get a good appreciation for the intricacies of the orchestration. Better this than a wash of reverberation that would bury them. A stunning disc!

Leslie Wright