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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971) Asyla, Op. 17 (1997) [24:01] Tevot (2005-6) [20:19] Polaris (Voyage for Orchestra) (2010) [13:30] Brahms, Op. 21 (2001) [5:05]
Samuel Dale Johnson (baritone) (Brahms)
London Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Adès
rec. live Barbican Centre, London, 9 & 16 March 2016
DSD Pure Audio
Text of Brahms in German with English translation included LSO LIVE LSO0798 BD-A/SACD [62:55]
I can think of few living composers, who have positively impressed me as much as Thomas Adès. Like Benjamin Britten before him, Adès has produced masterpieces in a variety of genres, including, among others, opera, orchestral, and chamber music. This is the third disc of his music that I have had the privilege to review for this website and quite possibly the best of the lot. When I hailed the premiere recording of Tevot I expressed reservations about Asyla, finding it only clever and well orchestrated (review). Both performances were conducted by Simon Rattle, whose orchestras commissioned the works—the Berlin Philharmonic for the former and the City of Birmingham Symphony the latter. I have gained an entirely new appreciation of Asyla in this composer-led account.
I listened to the SACD on a conventional stereo system and the audio Blu-ray, also included, on two players with different audio setups. The sound in both formats is terrific, with none of the harshness or dryness frequently associated with the Barbican’s acoustics. If anything, the Blu-ray is slightly more realistic as to the placement of the instruments. One can visualize the orchestral layout with a somewhat greater tangibility. I don’t want to make too much of this, because both formats leave nothing to be desired purely as sound. LSO Live has contributed a deluxe production with substantial notes by modern music specialist Paul Griffiths. The booklet also contains listings of the orchestra members for each of the works on the disc.
Adès was immediately hailed as a composer of notice, when Asyla was premiered under Rattle in 1997. Griffiths describes this piece, which can be seen as the first of the orchestral trilogy on the disc, as “an extraordinary soundscape of fantasy and urgent reality, delicacy and excitement, bitter disillusionment and glowing hope.” As Adès himself has explained, the title Asyla has more than one meaning. It may be viewed as a place of confinement, but also as a place of safety, a place of rest.
The work is in four movements and employs a large orchestra with a wide variety of unusual instruments, especially percussion. These include tuned cowbells, a water gong, an upright piano tuned a quarter-tone flat, as well as all kinds of drums, sandpaper blocks, and large paint containers. Among the woodwinds are a bass flute, bass oboe, and contrabass clarinet, the last-named heard rumbling at the bottom of the orchestra. Adès’s individual use of these instruments is apparent from the start of the first movement led by piano and percussion—primarily cowbells— that Griffiths describes as “a new world, of stairways of sound,” after which an extensive and memorable horn melody is heard. Indeed, the composer’s music is recognizably his own from the get-go, music that is both complex and accessible for those with open ears. The second movement is a slow movement that starts out with percussive sounds, reminding me of dripping water, before the bass oboe enters with an angular passage, later joined by other instruments. Adès subtitles the third movement Ecstasio, where the full range of percussion is used to depict a “club scene,” as Griffiths refers to it, with a heavy and wild dance over a 4/4 bass beat that conjures up a techno dance. The finale is again slow, beginning in the depths of the orchestra overlaid with more bell sounds, before it becomes animated and rises to a huge climax, only to recede at the end.
Adès takes a little more time with the piece than Rattle does on the first recording, and I was able to appreciate all the intricacies of the work with his analytical focus much better. The clarity of the sound on the new disc was also a factor, but not the prevailing one. In the quiet sections Adès is more ethereal and disquieting—eerie even. Rattle seems to hit you over the head and become tiring, with so much emphasis placed on the many loud passages of the score. Ironically, after getting to know Asyla in Adès’s account, I now appreciate Rattle’s more than I did before—though I still prefer the new one overall.
With Tevot, the tables are somewhat turned. I was bowled over by Rattle’s performance on EMI and still find the brassy ending in that account overwhelming. To reiterate from my earlier review, the title Tevot also has more than one meaning: the Hebrew word means both “ark,” such as that built by Noah, and “bars,” in the musical sense. Griffiths explains that tevot and asyla can both be places of safety. He sees the two works as “symphonies,” but Tevot, unlike Asyla, is a single-movement work. As I noted before, Tevot is scored for a huge orchestra with eight horns, lots of percussion, and much else besides. It grows organically from its static beginning with high strings and woodwinds above the lowest instruments, Janáček-like, to the blazing climax at the end. Where Adès triumphs over Rattle, particularly, is in the slow middle section. In Rattle’s recording, the tension dissipates a bit, so that the climax does not seem as inevitable as it does in the new account. Still, Rattle impresses immensely with the glorious Berlin brass playing at full hilt as the work concludes.
The most recent work on the disc and the third of the trilogy, Polaris, was new to me. As Adès himself has described it, “Polaris explores the use of star constellations for naval navigation between the absent sailors and what they leave behind.” Of course, the name Polaris refers to the Pole Star, the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, as well as its modern connotations in space travel. Adès composed this work for the opening of the New World Symphony’s hall in Miami, Florida and subtitled the piece, “a voyage.” Griffiths calls it “space travel in sound.” As in Tevot, Adès employs a very large orchestra here, but this space journey is initiated by a celestial-sounding solo piano like so many twinkling stars. Adès has some of the brass instruments placed in various positions in the concert hall to create the allusion of stars in space. However, this does not register that clearly either on the SACD or the Blu-ray. It really requires video to achieve the full effect. As the piece develops, the dynamic level increases and the orchestration becomes more dense, leading up to a climax that is “only a station on the way to a further voyage,” according to Griffiths. A third, and final, climax leads the work to its conclusion with a loud, intense chord that seems to vanish into space. To me, the final note is not as conclusive as that in Tevot, but perhaps that is Adès’s intention. At any rate, Polaris is a masterful way to end the trilogy and a fine work in its own right. There is an earlier recording, which I haven’t heard, by the Melbourne Symphony under Markus Stenz, but I cannot imagine that it would equal this authoritative one.
The programme concludes with a sort of encore, the five-minute orchestral song, Brahms, which was commissioned for Alfred Brendel’s 70th birthday, utilizing a quirky portrait of Brahms from a poem by pianist Brendel. It is a witty and rather affectionate tribute to Brahms, where his ghost appears reeking of cigar smoke and knocking out loud chords and octaves on his piano. It contains some of Adès’s darkest and most dissonant scoring, punctuated by brass and growling contrabassoon. At the same time, it uses Brahmsian intervals and has references to some of his works. Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson gets right into the spirit of the music and accomplishes his task with relish.
It goes without saying that this new disc is a must for any fan of Thomas Adès and anyone who cares about the future of classical music as it is being composed in our time.