Concentric Paths

Beethoven
Namensfeier – Overture, Op.115
Stravinsky
Pulcinella – Suite
Adès
Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ [UK premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Anthony Marwood (violin)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Thomas Adès


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Few musicians in the Proms century-plus history can have appeared as composer, conductor and pianist, something that Thomas Adès has achieved in little more than a decade. Here he featured in the former two categories – conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a programme that included the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto, thoughtfully placed alongside music by Beethoven and Stravinsky.

Subtitled ‘Concentric Paths’, Adès’s new concerto consists of three movements – though the fact that the central movement is longer than the outer two combined puts paid to any consideration of this as a traditional concerto. ‘Rings’ seems to have very much a preludial function – focusing on harmonic and rhythmic asymmetries and with a Ligeti-cum-Adams synthesis that feels determinedly, maybe even designedly, provisional. One of the most distinctive features of Adès’s composing is his recourse to a diversely constituted chamber orchestra, such as informs ‘Paths’ to a far-reaching and engrossing degree. Musically, the movement unfolds over two large cycles of activity – the writing for the soloist intensifying though always lyrical and, at crucial points, offset by the orchestra’s stabbing interjections and unstable textures. It remains for ‘Rounds’ to conclude the work with a polyrhythmic interplay such as brings about the feeling of tonal and expressive closure almost in spite of itself.

Adès’s previous large-scale instrumental work, the Piano Quintet (2000), left one admiring its formal deftness and ingenuity but uninvolved as regards its intrinsic content. For all the richness and consistency of the writing, the Violin Concerto may prove likewise – though it would be churlish to deny the skill with which soloist and orchestra variously combine, nor that the solo part is unerringly geared to the strengths of Anthony Marwood (a fine chamber musician). Certainly this is a piece that could well reveal ‘hidden depths’ on future hearings.

Whether Adès’s account of the Pulcinella Suite would do so is more doubtful. Not that this capable and alert performance lacked anything in elegance or style; but the self-consciously applied dynamics and fussy point-making too often got in the way of Stravinsky’s discreet but invigorating reappraisal of these modest 17th-century songs and dances. The most extended sequence, from the ‘Serenata’ through to the ‘Andantino’, went inconsequentially on its course, though woodwind phrasing and articulation in the ‘Gavotte’ and ‘Variations’ was a delight. A curate’s egg of a reading, which rather suggested that Adès might not be entirely at ease with this coming-together of the old with the new.

Otherwise, it was left to Beethoven to frame proceedings. The most seldom heard orchestral work of his maturity, Namensfeier has come in for more than its share of brickbats regarding its awkward structure and needlessly abrasive harmonic cadences – both of which were shown to be virtues in this lithe and propulsive reading. There were good things in the Fourth Symphony, too – notably a latent unease in the slow introduction, and a wistful elegance in the Adagio, otherwise lacking the pathos which makes it one of Beethoven’s most searching symphonic slow movements. The scherzo, its trio sections taken at the same underlying pulse, had a curiously enervated energy – while the outer movements had vigour aplenty but little of the character evinced by their questing reappraisal of Classical precepts. Moreover, though the COE strings coped ably with the headlong tempos required of them, their articulation could not but suffer given the sheer resonance of the acoustic: something towhich Adès, now a seasoned performer at the Royal Albert Hall, might have given greater attention.



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