Photograph of Thomas Adès
… but all shall be well, Op.10
America (A Prophecy), Op.19
The Trojans (excerpts)
Second Orchestral Set
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Thomas Ades
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 27 March, 2002
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Musical prophecies aplenty in this enterprising programme, Thomas Adès’s first full concert with the CBSO, which begun with Tchaikovsky. Fate (1868) fell victim to Tchaikovsky’s self-critical instinct immediately after its premiere, and has had few performances since its posthumous revival. Liszt – whom Tchaikovsky often derided but whose influence on his own work is not infrequent – is evident in the portentous opening music which recurs mid-point and at the close as an effective framing device, contrasted with themes that denote the future composer of Romeo & Juliet and Francesca da Rimini. What the work lacks in formal expressive coherence it makes up for in emotional immediacy and, judging by his sympathetic account, is clearly one for which Adès has an affection.
Choosing extracts from The Trojans is not easy, Adès’s selection giving no mean overview of the epic without quite gelling as anticipated. Cassandra’s ’Les Grecs ont disparu! … Malheureux Roi!’ was sung with feeling if not quite the required gravitas by Susan Bickley. The ’Trojan March’ anthologises various appearances of the indelible tune, its structural joins not fully disguised in a slightly too choppy performance. The ’Prologue’ to the Carthaginian portion of the opera, written in 1863 and Berlioz’s last notable composition, is seldom revived. Adès played down its monumentality but brought out an appropriate Gluck-like nobility. The ’Royal Hunt and Storm’ benefited considerably from the spatial possibilities of Symphony Hall, though the entry of the chorus created less of a frisson than expected – Ades stressing rhythmic energy rather over cumulative passion.
Ives’s Second Orchestral Set (1915) receives far fewer performances than its ’New England’ predecessor – unfairly so, as this succession of mystical elegy, anarchic scherzo-collage and fervent evocation of Hanover Square in the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking is a product of the composer’s maturity to rank with the Concord Sonata and Fourth Symphony. Adès judged the balance between contrast and coherence to perfection (with virtuoso pianism from Lynda Cochrane in the ’Rockstrewn Hills’ scherzo), and though the ’Te Deum’ chant opened the third piece a little too politely, the emotional charge of the music was thereafter never in doubt.
As a much-lauded composer of the younger generation, it was natural that Adès feature his own music. … but all shall be well (1993) is an ingenious and translucently-scored traversal through three rhythmic and harmonic cycles, making discreet allusions to earlier composers in its oblique gloss on lines from Eliot’s “Four Quartets” – appealing and inscrutable in equal measure.
Whereas America (1999), closing the concert, is a provocative statement with a vengeance. While Ades could not have foreseen that this work, subtitled ’A Prophecy’, would take on the resonance it has done in the wake of September 11, the message – derived from Mayan and Spanish texts – remains an uncompromising one of urban degeneration and destruction. Susan Bickley sang with plaintive neutrality, the CBSO Chorus covering the gamut of vocal styles from quasi-medieval to quasi-modernist with conviction. The orchestral writing, alternately ominous and explosive, surpasses Adès’s Asyla in its visceral impact. That work was a CBSO commission; it is good that America is to be recorded by these forces following this performance. As a work of its time, there could be none more relevant.