Britten Sinfonia/Thomas Adès at Queen Elizabeth Hall with Pekka Kuusisto

Les baricades misterieuses
Couperin, arr. Thomas Ades
Les baricades misterieuses
Three Studies from Couperin
Le tombeau de Couperin
Le rossignol – Airs du rossignol; Marche chinoise
Suites 1 & 2 for Small Orchestra
Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’

Pekka Kuusisto (violin)

Britten Sinfonia
Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 27 February, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Thomas Adès. Photograh: Nigel LuckhurstBritten Sinfonia has a knack for quirky programming, and given the near full house that this concert with Thomas Adès attracted, it seems to be paying off. Adès’s bill of fare toyed with the idea of transcription and adaptation, placing his own works against those by composers with whom he shares an affinity. Much of it, though, was strangely muted – often literally so – and it took the second-half addition of maverick violinist Pekka Kuusisto to bring it to the boil.

The concert opened with one small keyboard piece – by Couperin, from Pièces de Clavecin – and unfurled from there. Adès took to the piano at extreme stage-left and rushed through it. As a result, most of the overlapping rhythmically complex detail that Adès professes to have learnt so much from was lost. He then conducted his own arrangement of the piece for a quintet composed of clarinets and low strings which intriguingly teased out the work’s strands, but lost most of its serene magic in the process.

The mutes came out for the first of Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin, scored for an orchestra skewed towards the treble – many more violins than cellos or basses. The first of these, based on ‘Les amusemens’ from Pièces de Clavecin, is most obviously like the “mysterious barricades” that opened the concert. But in Adès’s fragmented version the texture undulates ever-so-gently, as though we’re only hearing the peaks of the acoustic waves. It feels distant; a wrong-end-of-the-telescope effect that’s both enticing and, frankly, a little irritating. Adès’s skill in orchestrating his Couperin expansions is as masterful as exposure to his works has taught us to expect, but the distance seems to place Couperin’s world behind glass, like a hands-off museum display.

Ravel’s take on the Couperin legacy couldn’t be more different. These four orchestrated movements from the original six that make up the piano suite crackle with life in a way that suggests the earthy wisdom of their inspiration. Britten Sinfonia’s chamber-orchestra numbers allowed the detail of Ravel’s brilliant instrumental writing to come to the fore, not least in Nicholas Daniel’s fluently phrased oboe line. But maybe the mechanics were a little too much to the fore; Adès’s conducting seemed to make more of jabbing contrasts than easy flow.

Pekka Kuusisto. Photograph: Tanya AholaCouperin was put to one side for the second half, which offered a sequence of pieces by Stravinsky, arranged by the composer from works composed within a decade of The Rite of Spring. Kuusisto joined Adès for arrangements of sections of Le rossignol, made after Stravinsky had met the Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin in 1930. Kuusisto immediately showed how little conventional instrumental beauty matters to him, playing extended passages with no vibrato at all and often deliberately souring his tuning. It got a bit much at times, but such is his bravery in pushing well beyond the conventional limits of good taste that it was hard on this occasion not to admire him for trying.

Britten Sinfonia reassembled for Stravinsky’s Suites, orchestrations of two sets of piano pieces composed during the First World War. The first set is of gentle paintings, touchingly and effectively orchestrated; the second (with Kuusisto at the piano) are raucous scenes from the circus, often marching to an oom-pah bass and giving Britten Sinfonia the chance to indulge its unruly side.

The largest orchestra, though, was saved for Adès’s Violin Concerto, subtitles ‘Concentric Paths’. The three-movement work was composed in 2005 for Anthony Marwood, the UK premiere being at that year’s BBC Proms, with the composer conducting Chamber Orchestra of Europe, didn’t make the strongest impression. The comparison with Kuusisto’s performance, though, proved fascinating, demonstrating just how vital the quality of a performance is on the fortunes of a new work. Kuusisto was magnetic: here is a violinist with such an instinctive grasp of expression that he seems to speak through the instrument like almost no-one else. The dizzying challenge of the solo part, almost anti-violin writing, was no hurdle to him. Where Marwood battled with it, Kuusisto projected a strong personality through the ludicrous difficulties of the first movement. In the longer slow one, Kuusisto’s dead-on intonation and pressed-out sound combined to produce staggering intensity. The abrupt end to the concerto still seems a pity, but the work emerged from this performance as one of the strongest distillations of Adès’s signature concerns, piling revolving layers on layers like a multi-levelled baroque passacaglia. And then, to top it all, violinist and orchestra gave a miraculous encore: The fourth of Sibelius’s Six Humoresques, with Kuusisto fluting and fluttering a bird-like song over peaceful misty string chords.

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