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Traced Overhead - The Musical World of Thomas Adès

THOMAS ADÈS : Five Eliot Landscapes: Chamber Symphony: Living Toys: Arcadiana

ADÈS : Traced Overhead
NANCARROW : Studies for Player Piano: String Quartet No 3: 3 Canons for Ursula
NANCARROW arr Adès : Piano Studies No 6 & 7 (world premiere)

Thomas Adès conductor/piano
Arditti Quartet
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Rebecca von Lipinski soprano
Peter Donohoe Rolf Hind
Katia Labeque Marielle Labeque piano
Pokrovsky Ensemble

LSO St Luke's Jerwood Hall 25 Mar 2007

This was a marathon evening, with two short intervals, centring on music by Thomas Adès and Conlon Nancarrow. It took place in one of London's best concert halls, which should be used for major events far more often. The conversion of the former church is beautiful to behold; seating is comfortable, with room for long legs and good sight lines. The acoustic is perfect.

That said, the programming, seemingly by a committee, was better in anticipation than in actuality. The concert was sold out (though there were a good number of empty seats) and it got a good audience reception; my comments should not be taken to reflect the generality.

I found Adès' Op 1 songs (written in the first 11 days of 1990) repugnant; Eliot's poems are inscrutable and nowhere illuminated by the settings. The imperturbable soprano screeched her high soprano part, doing as well as could be, but with no possibility to make many of the words recognisable [c.f. Claire Booth in Goehr]. At least we could follow the text, of which more anon.

After an Opus 1 which should not have been disinterred, the Op 2 Chamber Symphony confirmed the young composer's daunting cleverness, and I enjoyed the 'queasy but strict tango rhythm' with which it began, but by the end found it more memorable for its gestures and orchestration than for intrinsic music. No, that was enough of the 18 yr old prodigy.

Things looked up with Living Toys, a delectable second Chamber Symphony, full of incident and telling invention. And best of all, the string quartet Arcadiana, worthily entering the enduring repertoire. Very beautiful music, its ideas sparked by programmatic references, and sounding better from the Arditti Quartet in St Luke's than ever heard before.

Les Noces, the intended climax, is a tricky work to bring off and last night it failed (in the interval, people were talking wistfully about the Nijinska ballet version). Ades, with his decisive baton, did achieve impressive unanimity and synchronisation of the pianos. But the four famous world-class pianists (who unaccountably took part solely in this item) were near-invisible behind an over-rated Moscow based choir, whose national dress impressed more than their rather weak solo voices. The whole thing was relentless and felt over-long. We had bilingual texts but I (and those around me) found it impossible to follow them! The Labeque sisters, a likely draw for the audience, were really only to be seen when they took their bow, in teenagey costumes which might pass for fashionable in France? Frustrating that we never heard them again.

The final Nancarrow selection was substantially vitiated by the trendy and misguided "artistic" decision (oft deplored by Musical Pointers) to put out the lights (for "atmosphere", no doubt, we'd be told), denying us the possibility to sort out what we were hearing and follow the comprehensive notes explaining the mathematical complexities of this exciting yet very cereblral music.

The Ardittis gave a convincing account of Nancarrow's canonic String Quartet No 3, in which the players imperturbably maintained their parts at different speeds 'in the ratios 3:4:5 & 6'. They had a good night at St Luke's.

Adès played the series's signature piece on a lidless piano which had a curious effect as high notes pinged and bounced off the ceiling; I was more struck by its romantic Lisztian figuration than by all the Latin allusions we were able to read about after the concert. A greatly accomplished pianist, he also played one of Nancarrow's finger-knotting studies. After 3¾ hours I departed at 10.45 before Adès played his own arrangments of two more of the studies with video accompaniments.

For some of us, the most memorable part of the whole evening will have been the sight and sound of the magnificent brown Ampico Bösendorfer grand player piano of 1927, restored under the supervision of Conlon Nancarrow and meticulously prepared and nursed for this concert appearance (by whom?).

Although there were in this unusual context too many of the studies to listen to at a sitting, with somewhat diminishing returns, it was well worth making the journey to hear them 'live'!

Peter Grahame Woolf