Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
America: A Prophecy Op. 19 for mezzo and orchestra (1999) [15.39]
Susan Bickley (mezzo)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Adès
The Fayrfax carol (1997) [4.02]
Fool's Rhymes Op. 5 (1992) [4.14]
January Writ (1999) [6.14]
Polyphony/Stephen Layton
The Lover in Winter (1989) [5.40]
Robin Blaze (counter-tenor); Huw Watkins (piano)
Cardiac Arrest (1995) [2.39]
Les Baricades mistérieuses (1995) [2.43]
Life Story Op. 8 (1993)* [7.56]
*Claron McFadden (soprano)
The Composer’s Ensemble/Adés
Brahms Op.21 (2001) [5.40]
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
rec. no details supplied
EMI CLASSICS 0272012 [59.38]

If you have not yet picked up on the music of Thomas Adès then this compilation is a good place from which to start. It affords you a contrasting cross-section of his work demonstrating what the back of the disc describes as his “unquiet brilliance and uncompromising vigour”.

The CD has small-scale pieces as well as the vast America: A Prophecy which I shall discuss now as it takes up the first two tracks. The text, in English and Spanish, which sadly is not printed in the booklet, is from the Chilam Balam and from an ensalada, La Guerra, composed by the 16th century Spanish composer Mateo Flecha. It falls into two sections and was written for Kurt Masur to mark the Millennium. The Maya Indians were savagely brought into the western world by the violence of the conquistadors just at the time Flecha was composing for the Spanish court. The sound-world is typically original, using at first just a few rotating notes, sometimes, for example when the choir enter it is tonal even modal as Paul Griffiths’ booklet notes sensibly mention. Elsewhere it is freely polytonal and rich in its eclecticism. The overall impact is profound. There is a strong message and the music makes a tough impression taking no prisoners.

It is followed by the gently limping lullaby which constitutes the Fayrfax carol commissioned by Kings for their carol service in 1997. Actually the text comes from the Fayrfax manuscript ‘Ah my deir son’. It’s a deceptively simple piece with ambiguous but beautiful harmony.

Fool’s Rhymes falls into two brief movements with some early English texts and part of a sermon by John Donne. The voices are accompanied by percussion, harp, piano and organ. Its tantalising skittishness is all over in less than five minutes. Britten would have approved of this. Quite clearly Adés likes setting words and he is able to find some startling ones. I can only repeat that with no texts provided this must go against the spirit of the composer’s wishes, but I will keep going. January Writ reminds me of James MacMillan; the words too. They are from Ecclesiastes. This was another Millennium celebration commission this time from the Inner Temple. Polyphony are superb here especially the basses in there bottom register. The slow rotating harmony I am now recognising as an Adés fingerprint.
The other choral work is the brief ‘O Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin’ a good example of Adés’ choice of extraordinarily unusual texts and of original melodic sense.

An early work from 1989 and without opus number is the haunting ‘The Lover in Winter’ beautifully sung by Robin Blaze accompanied with much sensitivity by Huw Watkins. This comprises four aphoristic Latin rhymes alluding to renaissance music and lied but with a character all its own. Quite a feat for an eighteen year old.

The Composer’s Ensemble commissioned two arrangements from Adés, and quite contrasting they are too. Cardiac Arrest was a rock classic of c.1982 by Chris Foreman and Cathal Smyth for the band Madness. In Adés’ arrangement it is even more manic whereas the Couperin arrangement of Les Baricades mistérieuses is sober and elegant and cleverly fades out like a 60s pop EP.

I first came across Life Story - also in this form written for Composer’s Ensemble - in a version for soprano and piano back in 1997 when it emerged on CD sung by Mary Carewe (EMI Debut CDZ 69699 2) and thought it a masterpiece. The present variant for two bass clarinets and double-bass is even more sleazy and bluesy. The song has marvellous words by Tennessee Williams. It can be thought of as a post-coital pillow chat with a night’s casual pick-up, which possibly ends in a hotel room fire; one is left wondering. I prefer the sexy and suggestive Carewe who really gets inside the text. On the other hand I really like the slimy clarinets, so you should track down both versions.

Bearing in mind Adés’ love of setting quirky texts try the last track, Brahms commissioned for Alfred Brendel’s 70th birthday and setting a text in German which Brendel had produced. What it’s all about I can’t tell you but the music manages almost, but not quite to quote Brahms while at the same time managing to sound like a missing piece of Wozzeck. Quite clever and fascinating.

At the end of the CD I still felt like shouting out “Will the real Thomas Adés please stand up?”

Gary Higginson

At the end of the CD I felt like shouting out “Will the real Thomas Adés please stand up?”