The heady, complex and beautiful music of Thomas Adès

The heady, complex and beautiful music of Thomas Adès

No-one is going to pretend the music of Thomas Adès is going to be easy. Like much of the best music, it reveals its secrets over time. I was very, very taken with his opera The Exterminating Angel (after the stunning 1962 surrealist film by Buñuel) while back in 2014 his Powder Her Face at Ampika P3 (University of Westminster) revealed a compelling dramatic sense.

Most recently, a disc of Adès' music featuring Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein in the Piano Concerto won a Gramophone Award; en route to that was the present disc, solo piano music also played by Gerstein, with Adès himself as collaborator (co-pianist in the Concert Paraphrase on "Powder Her Face" of 2015 and conductor in In Seven Days for piano and orchestra of 2008).

Kirill Gerstine (left) with Thomas Adès. Photo copyright Marco Borggreve

A performance of the Concert Paraphrase at the the London Piano Festival at King's Place in October 2016 by Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva alerted me to the importance of this piece. Adès' opera was premiered in 1995; the Concert Paraphrase, an Adès take on the grand paraphrases of Liszt, Thalberg and the like, is a magnificent portrayal of the decadence of the world of the opera's main character, Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll. The performance here, by Gerstein and Adès, is magnetic, encompassing the sheer variety of the music, from loud dissonance to filigree tapestry. This is its World Premiere recording.

The "Berceuse" from The Exterminating Angel is another World Premiere recording. Gerstein himself inspired this piano version; he was especially taken by the Liebestod in a cupboard (!) of two lovers. Intriguingly, the conversation between Gerstein and Adès that was the catalyst for the transcription took place during rehearsals for a performance of Liszt's Totentanz, and I am convinced I can hear parallels between the musical language of Liszt's "dark side" and the Adès. But although this Myrios is a World Premiere recording, there is a performance on YouTube, taken from  NPR's "Tiny Desk" concerts so the setting is, shall we say, individual. If you start from 4 minutes in, you get Gerstein's engaging spoken introduction; the piece itself begins at 4"51:

Adès Berceuse from "The Exterminating Angel"

The three Mazurkas her were composed for Emanuel Ax and are in celebration of Chopin's bicentenary. We can hear them played by Gerstein, live at the 2018 Gilmore Festival, here:

The second Mazurka spins a web of sound, and how lucky we are to be able to compare Gerstein with the composer himself in this piece:

Adès plays Adès

In Seven Days is a magnificent piece that actually benefits most from the video installation by Tal Rosner that is designed for it: here is Rolf Hind at the Cologne Philharmonie in 2010, conducted by the composer, and on this video, we can see the projections:

The Myrios performance is taken live from the Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, on July 30, 2018. It is a creation myth piano-symphony that opens (and closes) with a musical depiction of a primordial space. It is only in the work's seventh panel, "Contemplation," that the theme of the work is presented in its simplest form. The solo piano's role is mobile, from Creator itself to commentator. The booklet notes describe the piece as a "multi-dimentional musical vortex," while Gerstein refers to its "cosmic vastness". Ambitious. The fact that this performance, with the Tanglewood Music Center (sic) Orchestra, comes under the composer's own baton gives it a natural authority. Perhaps make a point of checking out the glittering, virtuoso fifth movement, "Creatures of the Sea and Sky".

All of this of course comes at a time when Gerstein's performance of Thomas Adès' Piano Concerto on DG, again conducted by the composer and sharing disc space with Adès' own Totentanz has been so successful at the Gramophone Awards; very possibly another post there, but there's a link below to that disc, too, in the meantime, plus a Spotify excerpt.

NB at the time of writing, the disc of In Seven Days is discounted at the Amazon link below.