Thomas Adès at Barbican Hall

Along an Overgrown Path – Book Two
Wagner, transcribed Liszt
Tristan und Isolde – Isolde’s Liebestod
Sarcasms, Op.17
Allegretto in C minor, D915
Concert Paraphrase on ‘Powder Her Face’ [UK premiere]
Six Bagatelles, Op.126

Thomas Adès (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 April, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Thomas Adès. Photograh: Nigel LuckhurstHaving come to prominence as a pianist as well as a composer, Thomas Adès has only infrequently appeared in the former role, for all that his repertoire is a broad and diverse one. Such was evident in this enticing recital that consisted primarily of shorter pieces and operatic transcriptions.

While often overlooked by other than devotees of the composer, the second book of Janáček Along an Overgrown Path works well as a collection despite its posthumous assemblage and the fact that its contents span the first 15 years of the twentieth-century. Without attempting to disguise the stylistic disparity between individual pieces, Adès rendered them a cohesive and convincing whole – underlining the ambivalent calm of the first two pieces and pointing up the vitality of the final one, Janáček’s typically ‘off the wall’ take on the mazurka which tapers away uncertainly at its close.

If there is nothing untoward about Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ from “Tristan und Isolde”, its re-creative approach to Wagner’s orchestral texture in purely pianistic terms is in itself provocative. Finely conceived overall, Adès’s account failed only at an emotional apex that was too conscious of the piano’s limitation in conveying the music’s inherent ecstasy. After which the recklessness and inanity of Prokofiev’s Sarcasms felt the more so; the dexterity with which Adès carried out its challenges, the innovations of Bartók mercilessly exploited, a reminder that such music makes much of its impact when seen as well as heard. More surprising was Adès’s identification with the Allegretto Schubert wrote to honour a friend bound for Venice – the alternation between elegance and irony of its outer sections complemented by a ‘trio’ to whose otherworldly ruminations Adès did full justice.

Among the most significant operas of the past quarter-century, “Powder Her Face” (currently revived by Royal Opera) might not have seemed to have obvious pianistic potential, but Adès proved otherwise with a Concert Paraphrase that realigns some of the musical highlights into a four-movement sequence given continuity by the ingenuity with which the underlying dance measures are merged into and out of each other. Those for whom the opera’s overt theatricality is all may have been disappointed, yet the essentially tragic core behind its glittering façade was arguably conveyed even more keenly in such abstract terms.

Adés rounded off the programme with the third and last set of Beethoven’s Bagatelles, also the only one designed as a through-composed sequence and whose juxtaposition of rapt introspection with an insistent humour was well to the fore in this bracing yet always inquiring account. The almost wilful discontinuity of the final piece also made for an effective signing-off, though Adès responded to considerable applause with a poised rendition of Liszt’s Valse oubliée No.1 followed by his own recent Third Mazurka, whose evanescing into silence made for a more subtle bringing down of the curtain.

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