Traced Overhead – Thomas Adès

Concert One

Five Eliot Landscapes
Chamber Symphony
Living Toys
Les noces

Rebecca von Lipinski (soprano)

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lucas Fels (cello]

Pokrovsky Ensemble

Peter Donohoe, Rolf Hind, Katia Labèque & Marielle Labèque (pianos)

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Thomas Adès (piano)

Concert Two

Traced Overhead
Studies for Player Piano [selection]
String Quartet No.3
3 Canons for Ursula
Nancarrow arr. Adès
Piano Study No.6 [world premiere]
Piano Study No.7 [world premiere]

Thomas Adès (piano)

Jürgen Hocker (player piano)

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lucas Fels (cello]

Katia Labèque, Marielle Labèque & Rolf Hind (pianos)

Tal Rosner & Sophie Clements (video)


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 25 March, 2007
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

By the end of the second concert, the Barbican Centre’s “Traced Overhead” festival had begun to seem like a slightly sadistic personal endurance test for its subject. Over the course of four hours, Thomas Adès was rarely off stage: he played piano as an accompanist in his own music, as a duo-partner in that of Nancarrow and as a soloist in both, and conducted the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and others in varied configurations. Of course, as he had programmed the concerts himself, it was really masochism at work; or perhaps Adès simply has a huge appetite for making music.

The first concert offered a selection of his early works. “Five Eliot Landscapes”, his dazzlingly assured Opus 1, was sung beautifully by Rebecca von Lipinski; these songs are vocally demanding, responding to Eliot’s ecstatic rhymes and repetitions with declamatory zeal (in ‘Virginia’) and rapturous glossolalia (‘Rannoch, by Glencoe’), over piano accompaniment large in echoing grandeur. Two early chamber orchestra works, the nervy Chamber Symphony and vibrant Living Toys, were given virtuoso readings by the players of BCMG, who by now have this music in their blood.

All of Adès’s music generates a frisson of sensory over-stimulation; melody, harmony, allusion and quotation shimmer tantalisingly, just out of reach. Immense detail is packed into short time-frames, particularly in these early works, but never to the point of confusion – there is always a clear line projected through the atomised textures. If Chamber Symphony now seems formally a little schematic, there are still abundant pleasures in the hectic glamour of its scoring; Living Toys suggests Ravel in its lively wit, full of fantastical and vivid effects.

For these intimate, packed concerts, Adès tagged Stravinsky and Nancarrow as influences, and the finale of the first programme was a terrific performance of “Les noces” by an all-star cast. The Pokrovsky Ensemble of Russia, in flamboyant peasant costume, sang the chorus and the solo roles in almost operatic fashion, emphasising the folk-roots of Stravinsky’s music while the mechanical accompaniment pounded away behind. Unfortunately this accompaniment sometimes drowned the soloists; otherwise, this was a performance to savour, and Adès, clearly enjoying himself, held the wonderful buzzy reverberations of the last pianos’ note for as long as it lasted.

The second concert emphasised Conlon Nancarrow’s ear-bending experiments in rhythm and metre. A Bösendorfer player-piano was on hand to ‘perform’ a clutch of his anarchic studies, painstakingly punched on piano rolls to produce music of superhuman agility and complexity. Like Bach’s ‘puzzle canons’ in The Art of Fugue, the studies often use similar material running at different tempos; unlike Bach, there will be canons moving at ratios of, say, 17:18:19:20, super-calculated to produce nearly chaotic results. The influence of Nancarrow’s wildly swinging rhythms is clearly evident in Adès’s work, poised perpetually and thrillingly on the brink of metric collapse.

Heroic performances by Adès and the Arditti Quartet proved that such complexity can be performed by human beings, though the effect of Nancarrow’s live works is inevitably less spectacular than his piano rolls. Adès has, in that regard, transcended his model.

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