Thomas Adès has been active as a conductor from the outset of his career, and his current brace of concerts with the LSO provides an overview of his major orchestral works alongside music by earlier composers that has had a marked effect on his stylistic evolution.
Whether intended as such, Polaris (2010) makes for an effective curtain-raiser. This “ Voyage for Orchestra” draws on post-minimalist elements, and what sounds to be a subtly modified take on the ‘infinity’ series of Per Nørgård, in music whose pivoting between harmonic poles generates a methodically accumulating momentum; underpinned by offstage groups of brass (here situated in the upper reaches of the Barbican Hall) as a means of grounding the welter of activity elsewhere. What results is a two-stage process whose latter intensification brings about a brutal climax hardly unlikely in context. What is extraordinary is the chordal complex with which the work concludes: ostensibly an evocation of ‘white noise’ that blows the whole harmonic edifice apart while providing an audible resolution of the tonal trajectory.
Such considerations might seem far removed from concerns of 130 years before, yet Brahms’s Violin Concerto (1878) is a piece whose ubiquity should not detract from its discreet melding of tradition and innovation. It was this latter aspect which Adès seemed intent on underlining via an often combative approach to the orchestral passages that was offset, while not denied as such, by Anne-Sophie Mutter’s wholly Romantic conception of the solo part. Her range of shadings might have risked inhibiting the music-making, though the sheer presence she projected amply sustained continuity over the expansive first movement and ensured real depth of response in the Adagio. Perhaps the Finale (notably its nonchalant coda) could have had greater lightness of touch, but the authority of Mutter’s playing could hardly be gainsaid.
Brahms is a composer with whom Adès has professed a distinctly equivocal response, as did Alfred Brendel before him, so it made sense that when invited to set one of the latter’s poems, Adès should respond with Brahms (2001) – an ingenious though occasionally tricksy setting in which the German composer’s overbearing shadow is reflected in music that touches on numerous Brahmsian traits. Samuel Dale Johnson was commendably eloquent in the often unvarnished vocal writing, accorded focus by orchestration as un-deferential as is the poem.
Certainly this piece made a telling foil to Tevot (2006), the second of Adès’s large-scale orchestral works and his most all-encompassing yet in its notion of a formal construct which carries its musical content as might an ark carry those contained within it. Outwardly it falls into two radically contrasted parts, though with tangible continuity – ‘symphonic’ in ends if not means – as binds the volatile and often confrontational progress of its earlier stages to the measured and increasingly emotive build-up to the main climax with its forcefully rhetorical conclusion. It might be felt that the sum of this music is not greater than those stylistic influences to have gone into it, yet the sheer virtuosity with which Adès has marshalled these and the emotional impact that results was wholly in evidence here. The LSO once again gave its collective all.