48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Robert C. Hamilton
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
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.
20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
In the 1990s, Thomas Ades benefitted from one of the largest hype machines the classical music world had ever seen. This young composer, born in 1971, was the great hope of British music, the next great master after Britten (somehow Benjamin, Harvey, and Birtwistle were pushed aside), and just the man to bring classical music to the masses. That's a tall order, and one's disappointment in Ades' music deepens all the more because of the glory one was lead to expect. Some of his earlier work, such as "Asyla" and "These Premises are Alarmed", showed him a decent orchestrator, but the man's work has many weaknesses. These continue in this 2004 EMI disc, collecting ten of his pieces.
"America: A Prophecy" (1999) is the largest work here in terms of length and proportions. It was written for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra for the New York Philharmonic's "Messages for the Millennium" project. Ades sought to contrast the comfort of New York at the time with the bloody way in which the Americas were conquered, so he paired Mayan prophecies from the Chilam Balam with conquistador songs of bravado. Lines like "They will come from the East" and "They will burn your cities" made the piece especially poignant after September 11, 2001. Though the work is entertaining on the first listen or two, especially due to the odd vibrato-less mezzo-soprano, it gets old real soon. There's no subtlety here, Ades either bangs it out with massive orchestral and choral bombast with no economy, like Sandstrom's awful "High Mass", or keeps it real quiet. At both extremes, we get generally the same sonorities of "Asyla", which were cute before but now just seem sappy. I first heard "America: A Prophecy" over a year ago, it's taken me this long to tame my annoyance enough to review it, it's that bad.
Several chamber works primarily for voice follow, setting ancient or medieval texts. These are all quite lightweight, some of them even lack opus numbers, making one wonder how much work the composer put into them. "January Writ", for chorus and organ, seems fairly easy and might prove a hit with regional choruses. The others, however, are dull. "Life Story", here in an arrangement for soprano and a chamber ensemble of string bass and two bass clarinets, is just as unimpressive as the first time it appeared on disc for soprano and piano: if all you do is have your soprano sing like Billy Holliday, it's not all that exciting.
One reason "Asyla" got so much attention was because of its third movement, titled "Ecstasio". In 4/4 time, it evoked the bass/hi-hat alteration of house music and imitated the trippy synths of trace with woodwinds. Trying to follow in that success, this disc contains Ades' chamber setting of a 1982 ska rock hit by Madness, "Cardiac Arrest". Unlike Olga Neuwirth's "Hommage a Klaus Nomi" which supplements the arrangement with a strong dramatic spectacle, Ades' arrangement of "Cardiac Arrest" just sounds gimmicky. So an ensemble can imitate a rock song, so what? This is followed by Ades' arrangement of a Couperin harpsichord piece, where yet again any insight is lacking.
If you're interested in contemporary music from Britain, look for anything by George Benjamin or Julian Anderson, two composers whose music has some substance behind the surface glitter. Considering how far Ades' career had moved along by the last works here, it's appalling that he still hasn't shown anything underivative and rigourous.
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
From the review I had read of this disc in The Gramophone, I expected it not to be very good, and maybe that's why it took me so long to come to it. It is great. Just launch "America, a Prophecy" and hear what a great and imaginative composer and orchestrator Adès is. It starts like it could be repetitive music in the style of Steve Reich or John Adams - kinetic, dance-like, tonally simplistic -, and suddenly that expectation is interrupted and contradicted by sombre and menacing interjections in which low drones (is that a counterbassoon or a tuba playing in its lowest registers?) lurk at subterranean level. And that again is interrupted by the seemingly vibrato-less voice of Susan Bickley singing a wordless, single pitch. And the vortex starts again. That ability to always surprise one's expectations is one of Adès' most remarkable characteristics. In the course of its 15 minutes the composition rises to great dramatic intensity. Adès' tonal palette is wonderfully imaginative - you can almost sense the composer's glee at selecting ear-catching instrumental combinations. Even the brilliant and triumphant quasi-Gabrieli fanfares at 5:59 (in fact based on a composition by a 16th Century Spanish composer, Mateo Flecha) and ensuing chorus on the brink of bombast sound entirely genuine to his style, rather than patched-on and jarring moments as is often the case with such quotations and collages in "post-modern" music. I can think of no truer heir to Britten than Thomas Adès.
"America, a Prophecy" was commissioned by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic as part of their "Messages for the Millenium" series, given on the eve of 2000. Other composers were Hans Werner Henze, Kaija Saariaho, Somei Satoh, John Corigliano and Giya Kancheli. Masur's commission stated that he hoped they "would write a musical message for the year 2000, a universal message of hope to the people of the world." In lieu of a beacon of hope to the future, Adès looked back, at the destruction of the Maya civilization that rooted the American epic. Apparently, with its lines "your gods, your fathers, your children,/ Your cities will fall/ Your trees will be scaffolds/ They will rule from the backs of your fallen./ It is foretold/ Prepare", it was received as a patronizing and arrogant statement from a rep of the old world by the New York audiences on its premiere, on Nov. 11, 1999 (info retrieved from two online New York Times Article from Nov 7 and 13, 1999). Well, we all know what happened, exactly 22 months later.
The works contained in this collection were composed between 1989 ("The Lover in Winter", one of Adès' earliest compositions, without opus number) and 2001 ("Brahms" op. 21) and survey many aspects of his compositional output: choral, chamber ensemble, song, orchestral song. The Britten reminiscence I find again very striking in the choral pieces (the four included here comprise almost all of Adès' output in the genre; missing is only the short Anthem "Gefriolsae me" op. 3b from 1990, which is on Thomas Adès: Living Toys). There is the same love of Renaissance texts in Old English (The Fayrfax Carol on an anonymous 15th Century Marian text and Fool's Rhymes op. 5 from sermons of John Donne and anonymous Elizabethan and 14th-century nonsense poems - although I must admit here to being unable to reconcile the text I read in the booklet and the words I hear sung on the disc), a similar whimsicality (Fool's Rhymes sounds like the beginning of Midsummer Night's Dream, in slightly modernized form), and a similar love for harmonies that are altogether highly inventive and unexpected while giving the impression of being totally obvious. The nice thing with Adès is that one senses that he is fully aware of every technical and compositional advance spawned in the 20th Century and rejects nothing in principle (just try track 7, "Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin" op. 3a), but that he doesn't feel compelled to flaunt his mettle, just using what he needs for his own expressive purposes.
More Britten reminiscences in the four plangent and pining Medieval Latin songs, "The Lover in Winter", if only because of the use of a counter-tenor. The three next pieces on the disc were written for Adès' own chamber ensemble; two are arrangements of a rock song by Madness (kinetic and fun, but not very substantial; the crossover Dance music of Steve Martland comes to mind) and of Couperin's marvellous harpsichord piece "Les Baricades mistérieuses" (sweet and hushed, but nowhere near the original, especially when played at the piano by Alexandre Tharaud, xx). But "Life Story" is entertaining, a self-contained opera aria much in the style of Adès' famed "Powder her face", with the vocalist instructed to sing in the style of Billie Holiday, on a text by Tennessee Williams (from "In the Winter of Cities) whose graphic description of a couple after sex-making makes it quite morally incorrect and daring by today's frightening standards - it is the only CD of classical music I've ever seen with a "parental guidance" sticker, and I bet the simple use of that word in this review will result in its being screened before it gets posted). But the sonic wealth Adès is able to pull out of an ensemble reduced to double-bass and two bass clarinets is brilliant. Who needs a complete Symphony orchestra?
Still this is what Adès uses in his orchestral song "Brahms", written on the occasion of Alfred Brendel's 70th birthday on an impertinent and funny anti-Brahms poem written by him. Adès treats it fairly seriously - if you don't read the text you might think it was some modern "Erlkönig". It is about the return of Brahms' ghost at the piano, very offensive because of the smell of his cigar and, worse still, "the wading through chords and double octaves" of his piano playing which "wakes even the children from their deep sleep".
TT 59:38, good liner notes, texts included.