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Thomas Ades Puts On Weight
on 15 March 2010
Thomas Ades seems to get rave reviews and barbed insults from critics in equal measure: often for the same piece - read the reviews for Powder her Face. The line seems to veer between, "greatest since Britten" and "too clever by half". Some critics abroad resent the "next Britten" tag that some British critics are keen to label Ades as.
I suspect that the critics in the latter category will feel much happier with this compilation of more recent works. They show less of his youthful talent for parody and shock combined with technical prowess - admittedly the Powder her Face Suite is another dose of that. They'll be happier with growing signs of musical middle aged spread. The prime example here is the so called "masterpiece" Tevot. Ades has moved to a more weighty orchestration here, less concerned with parody and quotation. Indeed Tevot sounds positively late romantic at times, particularly towards its conclusion with its rocking, cradling theme and affirmative conclusion.
Don't get too carried away with the praise it's had, saying it's like nothing ever heard before. That's plainly not so but it is none the worse for that. It is a magnificent work lasting about 22 minutes and it leaves me at least craving for more. The description of the work symbolising some large vessel carrying its load in outer space isn't too helpful: it's not Star Trek music. I think Ades might have thought of the title and the description after writing the music. You can consider either as a symphonic poem or a very well constructed one movement symphony. The analogy of a vessel safely carrying the earth's load makes me wonder whether Ades possibly wrote this as a follow up to Asyla where the safe haven seems anything but. The vessel seems to be carrying the same rather agitated passengers as in Asyla, who make quite a bit of noise in the first part of the work, but the positive conclusion is in stark contrast to the uneasy and unsettling conclusion of Asyla.
It is predominantly slow but with a constrast between busy high strings and slow moving bass instruments. There are passages fo quicker music and some clockwork hocketing style music before the music quietens and moves slowly and inexorably, rocking gently towards its more romantic sounding climax with beats on the timpani, calls from the trumpet and with high strings - this sounds like very specific passages in the second movement of Janacek's Sinfonietta.
The violin concerto similarly is on the short side - less than 20 minutes. The outer quicker movements have some similarity to the quicker movements of Ligeti's violin concerto. The wonderful chaconne like slow movement dominates the work before the dance like finale. Incidentally, the slow movement sounds very much like a dry run for tevot even, seemingly sharing some material and similar formal outline - the rocking theme makes a brief appearance. So if you cross John Adams and Gyorgy Ligeti's violin concertos you'll get the picture.
Like Tevot, I didn't want the piece to end. I'm sure he could produce an even more expansive work in this genre. It is a more "objective" or neo baroque style than the expansive Tevot. The material for the opening and middle movements sound like they are a reworking from Tevot themes - It almost sounds like the same opening. Clearly the two works are related and you do wonder which came first.
The Couperin Suite is heard through a veil of centuries, not unlike that used by Valentin Silvestrov, except Ades is directly arranging old pieces. All the performances are live but with different performers and locations. the suite offers a moment of calm and reflection before the brash work that follows.
The three pieces from Powder Her Face benefit from a very spacious live sound that suites the rather big band sound of the first movement. It's a really enjoyable suite after the weighty works at the beginnning of the disc and, again, leaves you wishing for more - if you have a stomach for such biting satire. There are conscious hints at Ravel's La Valse even in the final descent of the third piece. The music combines popular dance rhythms with the biting dark satire - maybe not to eveyone's taste.
The recorded sound for Tevot with Rattle and the Berlin PO isn't the best but it doesn't spoil the work too much. The violin concerto is well performed and reasonably well recorded - if perhaps sounding a little thin.
So overall, I think this is an essential disc for those wishing to get more familiar with Thomas Ades's work. I'm listening too it repeatedly and enjoying. He's writing some very fine music and, hopefully, we can look forward to much more in future.