…but all shall be well
Piano Concerto No.1
These Premises are Alarmed
La Plus Forte [UK premiere]
Dances from ‘Powder Her Face’
Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 June, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Although he directed the LSO in a concert performance of his first opera “Powder Her Face” four years ago, Thomas Adès had not presided over a concert with this orchestra until this one, when he opted for a programme as symmetrical in design as it was varied in content.
Adès’s earlier orchestral works have rather been overshadowed by those that came later, making their revival here the more welcome. Written to mark the 150th-anniversary of Cambridge Music Society, …but all shall be well (1993) only latterly reveals the expressive range behind its laconic exterior – a musical embodiment of lines from T. S. Eliot that obliquely draws on elements of development and reprise in its equivocal response to the poet’s already fatalistic optimism, a quality that came through strongly during this poised and subtle though never overly-detached account from the LSO.
All of which was thrown into vivid relief by the performance of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto (1926) that followed, and in which Zoltán Kocsis once again confirmed an identity with this music matched by few others. Whether it was he or Adès who situated the percussion centre-stage on either side of the soloist, it certainly reinforced the work’s Baroque – specifically its ‘concerto grosso’ – ancestry. The relationship between the first movement’s portentous introduction and its visceral Allegro was effortlessly judged, and if the slow movement was a little swifter than it needed to be, the uncoiling woodwind polyphony at its centre was sensuously delivered. Perhaps, too, the pauses in the finale’s latter stages were over-emphatic, but the diatonic resolution towards its close never feels entirely warranted; at least Kocsis’s always scintillating pianism succeeded better than most in this respect.
Whereas the first Adès piece is akin to an extended intermezzo, These Premised are Alarmed (1996) is more along the lines of a concert overture and, as such, made for an effervescent curtain-raiser to the second half. Essentially a continuous and increasingly headlong accumulation of activity, it launched Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in fine style and remains a test of coordination in which the LSO was not to be found wanting. And, as with the other Adès pieces played here, it served as a reminder of the deftness and mordent humour that were once integral to this composer’s musical make-up.
Whether or not Gerald Barry’s La Plus Forte (2006) was a belated addition to the original programme, its inclusion could not have been more welcome. Utilising a French translation of Strindberg’s tensile monodrama The Stronger, this one-act opera centres entirely on ‘Madame X’ – locked in a one-way dialogue-cum-diatribe with ‘Mademoiselle Y’ that takes on aspects of an Expressionist monodrama from a century earlier well before its close. The vocal part is given context through a discreet but pointed orchestral contribution in which Barry’s familiar rhythmic unison writing has rarely been more meaningfully deployed. That said, it was Barbara Hannigan who dominated with an assumption (from memory) that lacked nothing in theatricality or finesse, while conveying all of the drama’s underlying pathos. ‘Adès night’ it may have been, but Hannigan (albeit temporarily) stole the show.
Music that found its unlikely foil in the ‘three-piece suite’ arranged three years ago from Powder Her Face (1995). Thus the ‘Overture’, viciously hinting at the uproarious events to come; the ‘Waltz’, in which the Duchess’s ‘arrival’ and the Waitress’s yearning become tellingly fused; and the ‘Finale’, with the Duchess’s downfall picked over in a tango of grimly sardonic humour. The music transfers well onto an orchestral canvas and, dispatched with not a little greasepaint by the LSO, reaffirmed the parent work as among the select masterpieces of English-language opera this past quarter-century.