Traced Overhead: Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Adès

Symphony No.70 in D
Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’
Three Studies after Couperin [UK premiere]
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21

Anthony Marwood (violin)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 22 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The close of “Traced Overhead: The Musical World of Thomas Adès”, this concert offered a chance to hear a further performance of his Violin Concerto, premiered by Anthony Marwood in 2005 in Berlin and then at the Proms, as well as the UK premiere of Adès’s Three Studies after Couperin.

The programme opened Haydn’s wonderful but neglected Symphony No.70, a work of coruscating energy and wit. Unfortunately Adès’s unconventional conducting technique and eccentric tempos were way off target. The outer movements are marked Vivace con brio and Allegro con brio respectively. At Adès’s lumbering speeds neither movement got off the ground; the first was taken at a plodding three-in-a-bar when it clearly needs to be conducted in ‘one’ for the infectious cross-rhythms to register, whilst the finale was completely lacking in humour. There was rough and ready playing from the valve-less trumpets and, although there were some fine individual wind contributions in the slow movement, elsewhere there was little in the way of dynamics.

Adès’s Violin Concerto – scored for a Beethoven-sized orchestra plus a couple of trombones and two percussionists – at least emerged more cleanly, Adès’s snaking beat now rather more precise. The title ‘Concentric Paths’, the composer explains, has to do with “harmonic circlings”; its three movements titled ‘Rings, ‘Paths’ and ‘Rounds’. However, the concerto is an oddly shaped construction since its slow extended chaconne-like central movement – by far the most successful – lasts longer than the outer ones combined; at least the middle movement’s protracted wail of anguish provides a genuine emotional core. By contrast, the other movements, whilst clever in their textures and patterning, come across as sub-Ligeti but – unlike that composer – fail to develop any sustained momentum. Marwood, a fine chamber player, failed to dominate proceedings and was frequently submerged by the overloud orchestra.

Rather more satisfactory as a construct was Adès’s take on Couperin, a composer he evidently reveres. Couperin seems to attract homages – as from Richard Strauss and Ravel; maybe the attraction has something to do with nostalgia for an imagined Golden Age. Be that as it may, Adès’s triptych is a thoroughly engaging and inventively scored work culminating in another scream of pain, ‘l’âme-en-peine’ (the soul in torment). The work’s three movements make delicate use of divided strings and create the most beautiful textures – the bass flute in the opening movement, ‘les amusemens’, was especially memorable. Whether it all added up to anything more than a confection is a moot point but it’s interior soundworld received the most sensitive treatment.

Adès’s over-excitable homage to Beethoven was an object lesson in how not to play this music. On the one hand it was shapeless due to his failure to exert any clear control of dynamics (the raucous trumpets at the close of the first movement were grotesque), and at the same time self-indulgently old-fashioned with endlessly protracted upbeats in the slow movement and a trio pulled all over the place. It represents some sort of an achievement to make an orchestra as good as the COE play this music quite so unstylishly.

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