Hidd’n Blue [world premiere]
In Seven Days
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selections: Der Schildwache Nachtlied; Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht; Revelge; Der Tambourg’sell; Urlicht]
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 15 January, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
One advantage, surely, of being the only pupil of a leading composer and established conductor is the possibility of some pretty auspicious performance opportunities. Spanish composer Francisco Coll is the sole student of Thomas Adès; he’s already heard his works played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now in this concert given by the LSO. Coll packs a lot into his four-minute Hidd’n Blue (2009/2011), overflowing with so many ear-catching colours that it threatens to become a manic melee. Coll’s handling of sudden shifts in direction is brilliantly assured, however, and his final twist is the abruptly cut-off conclusion, stopping the music’s flow in its tracks.
After Coll’s teeming score, the almost neo-classical reserve of the first minutes of Adès’s In Seven Days (2008) came as something of a shock. This is his ‘Creation’, a half-hour work for piano and orchestra (though never feeling like a concerto), originally written in conjunction with ‘moving images’ by Tal Rosner, but presented here without. Adès’s score is chirpy and buoyant, making do with a reduced orchestra, but some moments feel banal, particularly the ascending and descending sequences heavily involving the piano. Nicolas Hodges certainly brought clarity and motion to his part, even if the LSO (particularly the violins) made heavy work of the score, but the feeling remained that, without the visuals, a large part of the experience was missing.
Five settings from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn revelled in the composer’s endlessly fascinating orchestral palette, as much defined by economy as by invention. In Toby Spence, the songs benefited from a vivid actor, boyishly idealistic or bitterly ironic. Rising to a sweet falsetto in ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ (The Sentinel’s Nightsong) proved the former; the final words of ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ (The Drummer Boy) – “Good night! Good night!” – spat out in disgust as the protagonist’s execution looms, demonstrated the latter. Adès paced the songs well, but, at its loudest extremes, the orchestra often smothered Spence’s contribution.
Finally, Adès’s Tevot (2005-6) demonstrated his skill in sculpting a large musical span. The ringing climax is the natural evolution of the broad twinkling sweep of the opening. Throughout, this steady continuum wears a surface detail of instrumental chatter, provided by the huge orchestral force, including a plethora of percussion. At times it does feel overburdened by noise and activity, but it would be a hard heart that wasn’t swept along by the mounting tide of optimism.