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Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
Works for Solo Piano
Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009) [17:25]
Still Sorrowing Op. 7 (1992) [11:00]
Darkness Visible (1992) [8:03]
Bianca Variations (2015) [5:56]
Traced Overhead Op. 15 (1996) [10:39]
Mazurkas Op. 27 (2009) [8:46]
Souvenir (2018) [7:22]
Han Chen (piano)
rec. 2019, Oktaven Studio, Mount Vernon, New York
NAXOS 8.574109 [69:43]

Adès is that rare thing, a successful contemporary opera composer. His first opera, Powder Her Face (1995), about the scandalous life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, was an immediate success and has had several productions and two recordings. His second, The Tempest, based on Shakespeare, is on a larger scale and was also a great success, and given two recordings. The most recent, The Exterminating Angel (2016), based on the film by Buñuel, was commissioned for the Salzburg festival, later came to London and New York and has been issued on DVD. I have seen the second and third of these and have been greatly impressed. There has also been a number of orchestral works which have been well received. I therefore came to this collection of piano music with high expectations.

I have to confess I have been slightly baffled. The assurance Adès has displayed in his operas and orchestral works seems to me to be only fitfully displayed in his writing for the piano, this despite his being an excellent pianist himself. His idiom seems very unstable: some passages have the angularity and stabbing interjections I associate with the most uncompromising serial works, while at other times we have the kind of virtuosity characteristic of Liszt, and some of the strange harmonies we know from Scriabin and Busoni. The works are mostly very demanding, but they seem only occasionally successfully communicative.

Still, to details. The Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face is a modern equivalent of the operatic paraphrases by Liszt or Busoni (the Carmen fantasy), based on his opera but written many years later. It is long for such a work and in four discrete sections. Each is based on a scene in the opera but freely transcribed and elaborated. The first section features the kind of splintered writing I mentioned before; the second, very brief, is a kind of toccata with leaps all over the place; the third is playful and the fourth, also short, ends with a tango.

Still Sorrowing and Darkness Visible are much earlier, and both derive from Dowland (though the title of the second comes from Milton). In Still Sorrowing the middle register of the piano is muffled, giving an odd quality to the notes. It is a series of refrains with references to later music. It is a sombre piece, in keeping with Dowland’s admitted character. Darkness Visible takes an actual Dowland song, In darkness let me dwell, and transforms it using contemporary techniques. It is interesting in showing how Adès works.

The Bianca Variations also derive from one of his operas, in this case The Exterminating Angel, in which the character Bianca Delgardo is a pianist and plays this work in the first act. It begins with a Ladino folk tune which is taken through a series of variations in varying styles, some very elaborate. The whole work is lyrical and I enjoyed this most of all the works here.

Traced Overhead is in three movements which get progressively longer. It exploits the idea of ‘vertical space,’ or a feeling of weightlessness, using increasingly elaborate means. The three movements are strongly contrasted, the first being very short with an airy quality, the second, we are told, features an unplayed melody created by interaction between the hands, and the third brings a forward a long melody with rich harmonization.

The Mazurkas were written to a commission by the pianist Emanuel Ax to mark the Chopin bicentenary. While they are indeed mazurkas, they are at a considerable distance from Chopin, suggesting perhaps Scriabin’s mazurkas with a good deal of contrast and writing in the highest register of the piano.

Finally, Souvenir is taken from the film Colette, for which Adès chose music from the period, the 1890s, in which it is set and also some music of his own. You can get the soundtrack on CD. Here we have the closing music, which in the film Adès himself plays. It is an evocation of the period, a slow waltz which starts like pastiche of Debussy’s Clair de lune and stays gentle and dreamy.

Adès is a considerable pianist himself and can play these works, so his piano writing is idiomatic for the instrument even though I don’t think he has yet achieved a consistent musical idiom. Several of the works here derive from works in other mediums and maybe he has yet to do his best work for the piano. I would certainly be very curious about a sonata or other large-scale original keyboard work from him.

Han Chen has very nimble fingers and copes well with the sometimes intricate writing and repeated notes. He is less strong on the poetic side. The recording is very clear and rather close. The booklet notes are helpful. I found this disc more interesting than satisfying but Adès remains a name to watch.

Stephen Barber

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