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Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
The Twenty-fifth hour: Chamber music of Thomas Adès
Piano Quintet (2001) [19:18]
The Four Quarters (2011) [17:59]
Arcadiana (1993) [19:57]
Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook (violins), Jonathan Moerschel (viola), Eric Byers (cello)) Thomas Adès (piano)
rec. All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 2014

Few contemporary composers have met such acclaim as Adès. Just take two examples: his orchestral works have been regularly recorded by EMI – let’s hope Warner continue the practice. His opera on The Tempest was first produced at Covent Garden in 2004 and has since been revived both there and in many other opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera, New York and Vienna; it has also been recorded twice (review). Now we have the chance to hear what he can do with chamber music.

What we have here are two string quartets, written eighteen years apart, and a piano quintet which comes chronologically between them. Arcadiana is an early work with strong literary, musical and also pictorial associations, most of which are explained in the very helpful note by Paul Griffiths. The Arcadia referred to in the title is not the real barren and rocky landscape of that name, which is in the Peloponnese in Southern Greece, but rather the ideal landscape invented by Virgil and taken up in the Renaissance for pastoral settings. Arcadiana consists of seven sound pictures, six of which, Adès says “evoke various vanished or vanishing ‘idylls’. The odd-numbered are all aquatic and would splice if played consecutively”.

The idiom is astringent but not specially dissonant, though with a fondness for high registers. A constant feature is that of a dance form struggling to get through, for example a waltz in the first movement and a tango in the fourth. These are subverted by all sorts of noises off, which can include pizzicati, glissandi and high harmonics. Just when you think you want a change there comes a tune, a snatch of one or a bit more, sometimes quoted from another composer and sometimes new. The sixth movement is again quite different: taking its start from Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, it is slow, quiet, deep in the instruments and full of rich harmonies. This is the second commercial recording of Arcadiana, and it is on its way to becoming a contemporary classic.

This is also the second recording of the piano quintet, which like the first (with the Arditti quartet on EMI) features Adès himself on the piano. He is no mean pianist, as I know from his splendid recording with Anthony Marwood of Stravinsky’s violin and piano music (on Hyperion). Though three movements are listed this is really a massive single movement in an expanded sonata form. The first theme is an ascending group of three chords followed by a more rapid descent, a motif which is worked on before the first violin reaches a passage of quavers while the other instruments proceed in different metres. There is a rather Brahmsian second theme and even a modified repetition of the exposition before a development which culminates in a huge churning passage with complex rhythms which suggest that Adès had been listening to Elliott Carter to some purpose. From this there is a gradual retreat to a quiet résumé of the opening. Adès leads the listener carefully throughout so the work is easy to follow and with a great variety of textures and moods. It is a fascinating piece.  

The Four Quarters is the second string quartet. Here the controlling idea is that of the cycle of day and night. The first movement, ‘Nightfalls’, much the longest, opens with high violins playing repeated notes in the rhythm of an anapaest (short – short – long). The two lower instruments then enter far below them and more slowly. It is perhaps not too fanciful to hear this as a representation of the stars coming out in the sky while the earth darkens below. The two lines gradually combine in a passage of rather Bergian chromaticism, a process which is repeated with difference until the two strands separate out again. ‘Morning Dew’ is a scherzo which starts entirely in pizzicato. The scherzo of the Ravel quartet is not far away and the pizzicato movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet is even nearer. But in this piece the instruments all play in different rhythms, which only occasionally coincide. The second time they do this so excites the first violin that he picks up his bow again. Then all the others do too. ‘Days’ is built on a repeating rhythm of thirteen beats on the second violin while the other instruments have something quite different. The quartet ends with ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, which, like the first movement, begins with high violins, though no longer in that anapaestic rhythm, but in a dance rhythm of 8+3+8+6. This has many adventures but ends with a widely spaced D major chord.

The Calder Quartet hails originally from California and has made a speciality of playing contemporary works. They have worked with Adès for some years. Their performances are assured; though I have not been able to compare their versions of Arcadiana and the piano quintet with their predecessors I find it hard to think they would be inferior. The recording is clear, perhaps slightly on the dry side. I look forward to hearing more chamber works from Adès.

Stephen Barber

The Four Quarters
1.      Nightfalls [7:06]
2.      Serenade: Morning Dew [3:12]
3.      Days [3:50]
4.      The Twenty-fifth Hour [3:51]

1.      Venezia notturno [2:39]
2.      Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön [1:22]
3.      Auf dem Wasser zu singen [2:35]
4.      Et . . . (tango mortale) [3:53]
5.      L’Embarquement [2:34]
6.      O Albion [3:27]
7.      Lethe [2:27]

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