Traced Overhead: Scharoun Ensemble & Thomas Adès

Piano Trio in D, Op.70/1 (Ghost)
Piano Quintet
Court Studies from The Tempest
Mahler, arr. Andreas N. Tarkmann
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

Thomas Adès (piano)

Scharoun Ensemble:
Alexander Bader (clarinet)
Markus Weidmann (bassoon)
Stefan de Leval Jezierski (horn)
Wolfram Brandl (violin)
Christoph Streuli (violin)
Micha Afkam (viola)
Richard Duven (cello)
Peter Riegelbauer (double bass)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 17 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Berliner Philharmoniker opened the “Traced Overhead” festival with a virtuoso performance of Thomas Adès’s Tevót; now the Scharoun Ensemble, a chamber group formed from within the orchestra’s ranks, performed smaller-scale works, with Adès at the piano.

Though the Barbican Hall is no-one’s idea of an intimate chamber music venue, the performers generated a rapt intensity in Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ piano trio. There was a curious contrast between the ultra-refined string playing and Adès’s elemental pianism, but the result was compelling, particularly in the deathly-quiet and abandoned empty spaces of the second movement.

Beethoven is revealed as a presiding deity in Adès’s own Piano Quintet. This hugely impressive work occupies a similar sort of expressive world, one of sudden changes and reversals, and of compulsive working-out of germinal materials. An opening motive, consisting of rising chords and a conversely falling scale, is explored in faithful sonata form, complete with an exact repeat of the exposition. But this never feels like an empty exercise in classicism; more like Ligeti’s idiosyncratic Horn Trio, as both works are in dialogue with their historical models, testing them with unfamiliar materials. Another influence is Conlon Nancarrow, audible in the very complex rhythms of the Piano Quintet, particularly when the music suddenly accelerates in a jazzy hocket. But then, just as unexpectedly, come moments of utter stillness: a hymn-tune emerges out of interlocking fragments, like a hologram of a cathedral. The piece demands virtuoso musicianship, and got it in this entirely convincing performance.

Less cerebral was Court Studies, a little collection of characterful miniatures extracted from his recent opera “The Tempest”. Scored for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, Court Studies shows Adès’s more directly expressive side, particularly in the concluding passacaglia; his sensitivity to harmony and colour is suggested by the gradual fade at the end, the last two chords represented by the same note played on different strings of the violin.

For Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”, Simon Keenlyside stood in the centre of a horseshoe of musicians, his voice emerging from within their rich sound. Keenlyside is a superbly poetic singer, and inhabited the heady emotional atmosphere of the songs; if his upper register was not quite on top form, this was forgotten as he gazed upwards at the falling flowers of the Lindenbaum. In Andreas N. Tarkmann’s clever arrangement, the musicians of the Scharoun Ensemble provided the perfect foil, creating a world of ambiguous beauty.

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