Les francs-juges – Overture, Op.3
Luonnotar, Op.70
Orchestral Set No.2
Symphony of Psalms
America: A Prophecy, Op.19

Rebecca von Lipinski (soprano)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In the “Traced Overhead” series focussing on his music, it made sense that Thomas Adès should conduct an orchestral concert. This programme typifies his selective but wide-ranging repertoire; well programmed, too, except that the order of the Ives and Stravinsky should have been reversed on either side of the interval.

It is comparatively rare these days for a concert to open with an overture, but Adès did just that with a cracking account of Berlioz’s Les francs-juges. Salvaged from an opera completed and then abandoned during revision, it remains the earliest evidence of its composer’s orchestral mastery. Adès over-phrased the ‘big tune’ on its first and main appearance, but the brass writing had the right glowering intensity, and the startling polyrhythmic lead-in to the reprise had a rare lucidity. Perhaps the coda skirted the bombastic, but Adès rightly resisted any acceleration through to the close.

From Berlioz in his youthful exuberance to Sibelius in the most radical phase of his maturity, and a “Luonnotar” that made up for in formal coherence what it lacked in atmosphere. Rebecca von Lipinski dispatched the treacherous vocal writing with keen assurance, while Adès’s care over dynamic nuance made the recessional-like final section the emotional culmination that it so rarely is in performance.

Even finer was Ives’s Second Orchestral Set which ended the first half. Too long in the shadow of its predecessor, the present work actually possesses a greater cumulative impact; something Adès was mindful to convey from the hushed intensity of ‘An Elegy to Our Forefathers’, through the capricious cross-rhythms of ‘The Rockstrewn Hills’ – its concertante piano part expertly dovetailed into the orchestral texture – to the grandly all-encompassing threnody that is ‘From Hanover Square North’– its offstage chorus suitably distanced and its layered crescendo of emotion powerfully brought off, the reading struck as ideal a balance between the precise and the affecting as one might hope for.

Less satisfying was Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” – mainly because the rapid tempos that Adès (not unreasonably) favoured brought a corresponding lack of rhythmic definition in the first setting, and robbed the second of its expressive poise. The first half of the finale was propulsive, but the hieratic nature of what follows was underplayed – neither alive with mystery nor timeless in import. An amorphous balance between voices and instruments may not have helped – but it was ironic that music that expresses nothing beyond itself ended up barely expressing even that.

The performance may have carried greater conviction had it preceded the Ives, so allowing what Paul Griffiths termed ‘America: A Polyphony’ to be followed by “America: A Prophecy” – the uncompromising statement with which Adès greeted the current millennium. As before, the work’s juxtaposition of musicsevoking cultural collapse and disintegration was tangibly conveyed in its two tightly organised sections that draw on salient American idioms without suggesting other than an authentically personal vision. Susan Bickley gave the declamatory Mayan texts with even more expressive immediacy than before, and the BBC Singers brought a self-righteous anger to lines from medieval Spanish sources. The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s contribution made for an impact as visceral as it was impressive. A powerful ending to a notable concert, ‘America’ is hopefully also a prophecy of the masterpieces Adès will go on to write.

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