After hearing the recording of Asyla, which I consider one of the most exciting works on the modern classical scene, I have tended to give at least some initial respect to anything with the name Thomas Ades printed on it. Perhaps only this respect could persuade me to purchase a CD which juxtaposes Mayan texts, a sermon of John Donne, a poem by Omar Khayyam, and arrangements of a ska classic and a Rameau harpsichord piece. As it turns out, I was not wrong in my hopes that Ades would be able to pull off such a feat of eclecticism.
Of course, the main attraction here is the title work, America: A Prophecy. This big piece for orchestra, soloist, and chorus was written in 1999 as part of the New York Philharmonic's millenium commision. With lines like "They will come from the east ... they will burn all the land ... your cities will fall," the piece gained a rather terrifying new meaning after the September 11th attacks. It is possible that in light of this, the CD was slapped together quickly, blanks filled in by random unreleased Ades juvenilia. I doubt it, since the CD was released a full three years after 9/11; at any rate, Ades is such a diverse composer that an eclectic collection of his music actually makes perfect sense. His very unusual harmonies are audible in all the pieces, even the very early ones; thus the disc is musically unified, even if the themes are quite disparate.
America: A Prophecy is the second-newest work recorded here, and it falls easily into the same category as Asyla. The same utterly unique, very dense orchestrations (from a composer with ambivalence toward Brahms!) are all there. The alternation of this style with a ghostly, vibrato-less mezzo, however, is a new thing, and I find it quite effective -- though the odd singing style took a few listens to grow on me. The climax of the first movement is arresting in the same way Asyla's fourth movement is: the glorious diatonic chords manage to be at once genuinely triumphant but also wry and self-conscious; after all, this sort of outburst has been essentially illegal since the death of Gustav Mahler. I find the piece very effective.
Following this are a few choral works, all different but coming out of the same basic sound-world. The Fayrfax Carol is probably the most traditional, "archaic" sounding of them, a somewhat medieval sound complementing the passion-play-style lyrics. Fool's Rhymes contains some excellent percussive effects that just echo the work of Gallic moderns like Messiaen and Boulez. Ades, however, always remains closer to the diatonic scale. January Writ and O Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin are just as effective as the preceeding works.
The Lover in Winter, a song-cycle for piano and countertenor, is the earliest work on the CD, but you wouldn't be able to tell for sure just by listening. It is perhaps less distinctive than the newer works, but not less well-crafted. I also hear some echoes of French modern works in the piano writing. As a Latinist, I was thrilled to find some good Latin lyrics also! I wish I could have written music like this when I was seventeen ...
Next up is a much talked-about Ades work, Life Story. It was released a few years ago in a piano-voice arrangement, and famously insructs the soprano to imitate the vocal style of jazz singer Billie Holiday. I've never heard the piano version, but I find it hard to imagine arranging the accompaniment for piano alone; here it is played by two bass clarinets and string bass. I'm not sure that I like the piece especially well; the accompaniment is somewhat Stravinskian and detached, and seems not to fit in with the jazzy vocalizations. Perhaps I would just expect something a little warmer and more sultry for a setting of this Tennessee Williams poem; the whole thing seems a trifle cold. Not bad by any means, just less effective than many other works from Ades.
Two wildly disparate transcriptions follow: the first is of a "ska rock classic" by Christopher Foreman and Cathal Smyth called Cardiac Arrest. It is an odd little piece, very energetic and well-orchestrated. A pleasant surprise for me. Second is Les Barricades misterieuses by Couperin, originally for harpsichord. Rather innocuous, this is also given a good -- and somehwat "mysterious" -- arrangement.
The last piece on the CD, "Brahms," is also the latest-written. It sets a German poem by eminent pianist Alfred Brendel and was written for his birthday. It would seem that neither Ades (judging by previous statements) nor Brendel are terribly enthusiastic about Brahms' work, but at least Ades seems to be more paying an homage to the late-romantic patriarch than anything; the music is certainly not a pastiche, but it does come dangerously close to quotation a couple times -- though I believe the themes are all original. It is recognizeable as the work of Thomas Ades, but his usual frenetic orchestrations, with their percussive effects and extreme contrasts between low and high instruments are replaced with a very Brahmsian low-lying and homogeneous density. The German poem is set extremely well, making for an absolutely wonderful album close, at once humorous and serious.
It is a rare thing for a young, modern-classical composer to rise to swift stardom and become a household name before the age of thirty-five, and surely it would be easy for Mr Ades to get lost in all the hype. Yes, many people will probably buy this recording simply because of the eerie timing and message of the title work, or because Ades is a "hip" composer. But I think there is far more to this recording, and to Thomas Ades, than mere trendiness. He is a remarkable young composer with amazing technique and bursting with (sometimes too many!) ideas. He may not have fully found his voice yet, but his music can hardly fail to be recognized as his own. America: A Prophecy rates five stars, and comes highly recommended.