Anyone present in Symphony Hall, or glued to BBC Radio 3, on 1 October 1997, when Simon Rattle conducted the CBSO in the premiere of Thomas Adès’s Asyla will, I imagine, have recognised not only a striking piece but also one built to last. It has worldwide notched up numerous presentations: 150-plus, including the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and David Zinman with three more due imminently in Jacksonville. In London, I have heard Asyla (Latin plural for asylum, here meaning both sanctuary and madhouse) conducted by Dohnányi, Vladimir Jurowski, Metzmacher and Roth.
Asyla continues to compel attention, and with those back-catalogue accounts (not forgetting Rattle’s subsequent Birmingham recording, followed by his Berlin DVD) firmly in one’s consciousness, it was fascinating to hear Adès himself presiding over it. Asyla can be a disorientating experience, but in the most positive way, its four sections linked by conducted silence. At the outset thrilling in its outbursts and colours (the large-orchestra scoring includes cowbells and gongs, and pianos grand and upright, the latter de-tuned), then comes fragile beauty itself contrasted with exhilarating disco-beat drive, and finally (maybe initially owing to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, certainly reminding of it) a sense of desolation on the edge of catastrophe. With the LSO in total response to the commanding composer-conductor, Adès’s 25-minute Asyla was once again confirmed as an amazing piece, personal, enigmatic and also very real.
With Christian Tetzlaff as soloist, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto was highly charged, mercurial, quivering with vibrato and with a fiery first-movement cadenza. It was in some respects too showy, although the LSO and Adès provided some sort of anchor, not necessarily at-one with the violinist but vibrant in itself. The Adagio was revealed as being elegiac, although the turns to intimacy were a little contrived, and the Finale was nifty, Sibelius’s ma non tanto qualification overruled. A technical tour de force for Tetzlaff, but not without sounding strenuous and with the feeling that some notes had to be shoehorned into position, although Adès teased out some details often overlooked. Tetzlaff offered an extra, some slow J. S. Bach, caressed and communicative.
César Franck’s D-minor Symphony is now a relatively rare bird. I can’t recall a recent account in the capital other than from Christian Mandeal and the RPO (in September 2014). Further afield Adès conducted it with the Boston SO in October the previous year and Muti in Chicago remains loyal. There was a time when a new recording of Franck’s Symphony was a regular event, from such luminaries as Ansermet, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Boult, Celibidache, Giulini, Karajan, Klemperer, Maazel, Monteux, Ormandy, Paray and Silvestri (lucky thirteen, and not exhaustive). So it’s good that Adès takes an interest in the work.
Franck’s splendid Symphony is full of strong ideas and is also of an ingenious – cyclical – design. It’s not short on passion either, or beauty – the second movement is poetic, introducing a harp and giving a cor anglais a starring role, and with a delicate and quicker middle section, here ethereal. From the off, Ades’s conducting connected to the LSO and the music-making was expectant and expressively urgent. Adès conjured a volatile and insightful account, and climaxes blazed brassily and were agreeably edgy, suggesting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra of yesteryear. There was sensitivity, too, and Adès does a nice line in dynamic contrasts. The Finale, full of swing and shape, was also harried and indulgent; yet such extremes came off convincingly, and the coda, with cornets flaring, was a joyous release. It will always be motivating to hear Adès conduct other composers’ music.
I understand that Asyla (and the three Adès pieces from a week ago) have been captured for LSO Live. Cheerio César, then! What a shame BBC Radio 3 didn’t turn up for a live broadcast or a recording of this whole concert, to share a (these days) infrequently-heard Symphony championed by a high-profile musician. Yet this station can relay two Beethoven 5s in close succession, both conducted by Markus Stenz (February 23, BBCSO, and still on its 30-day lease, and March 17, Hallé). I’m not complaining but it does seem uncoordinated.