America: A Prophecy, Op.19
The Fayrfax Carol
Fools Rhymes Op.5
Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin, Op.3a
The Lover in Winter
Life Story, Op.8
Les Baricades mistérieuses
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
City of Birmingham Orchestra and Chorus
Thomas Adès [America]
Stephen Layton [Fayrfax, Fools Rhymes, Writ, Oh Thou]
Robin Blaze (countertenor) & Huw Watkins (piano) [The Lover in Winter]
Claron McFadden (soprano) [Life Story)
Thomas Adès [Life Story, Cardiac Arrest, Les Baricades]
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès [Brahms]
Recorded in 2002 and 2003 in various locations
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: May 2004
CD No: EMI 5576102
Duration: 60 minutes
Thomas Adès has made his name in recent years with two operas: Powder Her Face (recorded on EMI) and the recent The Tempest for The Royal Opera.
The major work on this CD is America: A Prophecy. It is one of six commissions to various composers from Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic as “messages for the millennium”. Four other pieces – The Fayrfax Carol, Fool’s Rhymes, January Writ, and Brahms – are also commissions. Life Story, Cardiac Arrest and Les Baricades mistérieuses were written especially for the Composers Ensemble.
America lasts 15 minutes and is in two parts. The other pieces are much shorter, ranging from just over a minute (the sections of The Love in Winter) to just less than 8 minutes (Life Story). Most predate America, from 1999; Brahms is the most recent piece.
The styles employed differ considerably. They range from a Tudor carol arranged for unaccompanied voices, a Latin text set for counter-tenor and piano, Adès’s instrumental arrangement of a harpsichord piece from Couperin to a complex a cappella choral setting of verses from Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam. There’s also a blues treatment of a text by Tennessee Williams (Life Story) and Adès’s arrangement of a “Madness” rock classic of 1982 (Cardiac Arrest).
Something of a mish-mash was my first thought – bits here, pieces there. Do they chart Adès’s development from 1989 and show him toying with different styles? Eclectic, certainly – but does a distinctive Adès voice emerge from all this?
Then I saw more clearly. Although the works, excepting America and Brahms, were written for different specific occasions, they effectively constitute a notebook registering the gestation of America: A Prophesy. A painting reference is apposite. These items are like sketches or cartoons, sure in execution and finish, yet playing with musical ideas and forms in readiness for the larger canvas. Although these particulars are not explicitly in the later work, that is immaterial, they have done their job.
America itself is a mixture of styles – intended to be so, composed very clearly and deliberately – the opening bars are orchestral, light-hearted at first (zippy, suggesting the opening of Weill’s Street Scene, quickly subjected to angular, forceful and disturbing interventions. Then suddenly a single, commanding, sustained note from Susan Bickley sails over the rollicking, unsettling rumpus. She is a sibyl. The music – so sparingly and economical – tells us so. Has a single, sung note ever been quite as scything as this, quite as fateful?
The grimly prophetic text is from a Mayan source (“We shall turn to ash … Ash feels no pain”). No Mayan music remains. We also hear, twice (in Spanish, then in Latin), a chorus acclaiming the heroism and victory of the conquistadors from La Guerra by Mateo Flecha. I was briefly reminded of Handel and Walton – but this derived from my participation in listening, not from any imitation on Adès’s part. Throughout the work, Adès’s keen ear for sound invokes an arresting miscellany of instrumental combinations, many vividly unexpected. His conducting is exemplary – great precision and control, lithely moving, with striking silences, and allowing full sonic space for solo instruments to create the impact that he, as the composer, intended.
The prophetic voice carries the acoustic and purity of the Gregorian chant and its various offspring for The Fayrfax Carol, Fool’s Rhymes, and January Writ 3-6. A countertenor takes The Love in Winter, yet the voice was undoubtedly female – rounder and warmer than a countertenor’s, showing this ancient (timeless?) prophetic voice to be unequivocally a product of today.
Adès’s music is modern in the sense that it belongs to the last quarter of the 20th century. Yet, it recognises its antecedents. These arresting sounds derive from a creator who has assimilated our musical past and incorporated it into his musical language. This is a distinguished piece of writing.
I listened to this CD several times, being more impressed at each hearing. Particularly: the laid-back command of Life Story (and Claron McFadden’s lovely singing, reminding me much, pleasurably, of Marian Montgomery); the purity of Robin Blaze’s countertenor (and Huw Watkins’s ravishingly delicate, harp-like piano accompaniment); the dark, springy vigour of Cardiac Arrest; and the warming surprise of Brahms stirring in his sleep just after Christopher Maltman had finished singing Alfred Brendel’s affectionate shudder regarding the great sensualist’s ghostly return.
A keen musical intelligence is here. Adès is serious. He is both moving and witty. He has fun. So will you, I guess. I certainly did.