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Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018) [21:26]
Totentanz – Dance of Death for Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone, and Orchestra (2013) [34:32]
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano); Mark Stone (baritone)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Adès
rec. live, November 2016 & March 2019, Symphony Hall, Boston
Texts in German with English translation included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 7998 [55:58]

These world-premiere recordings of two recent works of Thomas Adès have received considerable attention in the press. Although the recording of Totentanz is taken from 2016 concerts, it has not been released until now. My guess is that DG waited until an appropriate disc mate was found. A more appropriate one than the Piano Concerto is hard to imagine. They are big works that demonstrate two sides of the composer, but are nonetheless closely related in the way Adès composes for the orchestra. I am confident that they will only enhance Adès’s reputation as one of the leading composers of our time.

Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein requested the concerto from Adès while they were preparing Boston Symphony performances of the composer’s In Seven Days for piano, orchestra and six video screens. Much to Gerstein’s surprise, Adès responded with what he called “a proper piano concerto.” Indeed, the work contains all the elements of a virtuoso concerto recalling compositions of such predecessors as Rachmaninov, Gershwin, Prokofiev, and even Ligeti. At the same time, it has unmistakably the sound and rhythms of Adès. Some critics have dismissed the concerto as lacking depth and borrowing too much from the past. Several hearings of the work, though, show that there is much beneath the surface virtuosity and apparent influences. With its staggering keyboard scoring, the concerto seems tailor-made for Gerstein, who is known for his accounts of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes and Busoni’s mammoth Piano Concerto. The hope is that other pianists will take it up before long.

The Piano Concerto is in the three traditional movements: fast-slow-fast. In addition to the difficult piano part, the composer employs a large orchestra and percussion battery. The work delights in high, even screaming piccolo and other wind scoring contrasting with the subterranean low brass, woodwinds and strings—typical for Adès. The first movement has those fractured, jagged rhythms the composer seems to love that show the influence of Ligeti but with Adès’s own personal stamp. One also recognizes bits reminding me of passages in Prokofiev, as well as an unmistakable, jazzy figure nearly mimicking Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. Yet it all hangs together and prepares one well for the contrasting slow movement, which begins with a somber brass and wind chorale before the piano enters with a simple solo and the use of cluster chords. This piano theme is elaborated upon with brass/winds chords underpinning it. The movement ends on a chord low in the bass of the orchestra with the piano’s resolution on a B-flat. The finale then takes off with high-pitched winds and the piano playing disjointed chords and later scale-like passages reminiscent of the spectralist writing in Marc-André Dalbavie’s Piano Concerto. There is even a reference from 1:40-1:50 to a transitional passage in the second movement of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Adès’s finale contains much variety and builds up quite a head of steam until it reaches the coda where the piano and orchestra conclude the work with a thud, punctuated by the bass drum. Goodness, there is so much happening in this work that it invites numerous hearings to take it all in. The performance by both pianist and orchestra here is authoritative, stupendously so.

Totentanz, a song cycle in the manner of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, is scored for baritone, mezzo-soprano, and a large orchestra with triple parts for each wind instrument and much brass and percussion. The work, dedicated to the memory of Witold Lutosławski, in his centenary year, and of his wife Danuta, was premiered at the BBC Proms on July 17, 2013. The soloists were baritone Simon Keenlyside and mezzo Christianne Stotijn with the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The piece was first performed in the US in March 2015 with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall and Adès conducting. The soloists were, as on this recording, Christianne Stotijn and Mark Stone, the latter substituting for an indisposed Simon Keenlyside. The performance under review here took place in Boston with the Boston Symphony in November of the following year. The work has been received with acclaim from its first performance and is widely considered a masterpiece of the composer.

Totentanz was Adès’s first new composition in three years and his longest orchestral work to date. The composer had been captivated by a visit to Lübeck, Germany, and particularly the clock on the cathedral, whose hours are rung by two small figures: a man, who strikes the quarter hour and a skeleton who strikes on the hour. Adès was also inspired by a frieze that uses a similar idea, a fifteenth-century depiction in Lübeck’s Marienkirche, destroyed in World War II. The frieze depicts members in various stations of human society from the Pope to a baby. The image of Death is interspersed in each depiction, inviting the humans to join him. The baritone sings the role of Death and the mezzo all of the humans. The work is in 15 continuous sections and is based on an anonymous text, as portrayed in the frieze.

The song cycle is introduced by a preacher, who appears to be Death, being sung by the baritone. He invites all the others to come and see his play and warns that nobody can be spared death though they may think they will live forever. This introduction begins with brass fanfares along with shrill piccolo, low growling brass and percussion. The following verses depict a Pope, where Adès makes fun of him with slithery strings and describes his crown as being too tall for his grave; an Emperor, with a heavy-footed orchestra, representing his pomposity and loathsomeness; a Cardinal accompanied by monumental music; and a King with an off-kilter march in the lowest reaches of the orchestra before the mood brightens.

The fifth song begins with the tolling of a bell sounded by the piano to portray the Monk. As in some of the other movements, Death and the Monk sing separate verses at first and then come together. The song ends with a deathly waltz in three-quarter time. The next several verses depict a Knight, Mayor, Doctor, Usurer, and Merchant. These songs like the previous ones are dark and at times violent and stormy with the orchestra providing a powerful accompaniment. In contrast, the Parish Clerk’s song is quiet with eerie, whistling strings winds, and percussion, and is the longest segment thus far. Death and the Parish Clerk alternate verses and the song builds to a powerful conclusion. The following verse begins with the Handworker wailing in desperation for supplication, before Death interrupts and chastises him.

After so much darkness, the mood lightens a bit for the Peasant with a fanfare by the horns, accompanying the dance throughout. Death requests the Peasant join him in the dance. The penultimate movement continues the lighter atmosphere, where the orchestra plays tonally in 5/4 time before the Maiden enters. The mood continues with Death and the Maiden singing separately without interrupting one another, as the characters do in some of the songs.

The final movement, and the longest of all, appears to be Adès’s response to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, but with the two vocalists alternating their verses before singing together in harmony. The influence of Mahler is everywhere apparent in this final section, starting with a quiet string and woodwind chord much like that at the beginning of his First Symphony followed by a trumpet reminiscent of the solo in the discarded Blumine movement of that work and the posthorn in the Third Symphony. All seems more positive until a long postlude at the bottom of the orchestra, featuring contrabassoon and bass drum, changes the mood. As the music dies away, it leaves a gloomy impression. Death has his way and the singers repeat the word “tanzen” over and over, ironically recalling “ewig” at the end of Das Lied von der Erde.

Both Mark Stone and Christianne Stotijn leave a strong impression in their respective roles. I can also imagine the roles being reversed because almost all of the human parts depict male characters. The fact that they are sung by a mezzo-soprano does not in the least detract from their portrayal. I have been a fan of Stotijn for years, particularly her Mahler, and she does not disappoint here. When Totentanz was performed in the concert hall, the voices had to be discreetly amplified. Even then, the audience had difficulty hearing them over the large orchestra. There is no such problem with the state-of-the-art recording, as everything comes across clearly. The Boston Symphony leaves nothing to be desired in their superb performances of the rather dense orchestral scores here and for the concerto.

DG provides a handsome product in a cardboard sleeve—no plastic jewel case! The booklet contains good, if rather short, notes by Robert Kirzinger in English with German translation, a reproduction of the fifteenth-century frieze that inspired Adès, full texts of the songs, and a listing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra members.

To my mind the Piano Concerto and Totentanz are two of Adès’s most important works, on the same level as such orchestral pieces as Asyla and Tevot, and the opera The Tempest. It is likely that the Piano Concerto may provide the greater entertainment, while Totentanz leaves a more profound impression. I am writing this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic; if one finds the subject matter of Totentanz too hard to take then turn to the Piano Concerto for some diversion.

Leslie Wright

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