Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Thomas Adès - Totentanz. BBC Symphony Orchestra, 17th July 2013

It's wonderful that Thomas Adès exists, and that he's here in the UK. In the midst of the bland mush of popular culture in these troubled islands, here we have a real live important musical artist - you know, somebody earnest students will do doctoral theses on in a hundred years. And he's here, right now in our time; producing real live brilliant stuff.

Tonight was the premiere of Adès’ latest piece, Totentanz, which means "dance of death". This was also the title of one of Goethe's darkest poems, which began as follows   . . .

The warder looks down at the mid hour of night,
On the tombs that lie scattered below;
The moon fills the place with her silvery light
And the churchyard like day seems to glow.
When see! first one grave, then another opens side,
And women and men stepping forth are descried,
In cerements snow whit and trailing

You get the idea. Franz Liszt also wrote a highly inventive piece with the same title and references. Apparently Liszt was obsessed with death, and visited hospitals and executions to feed his artistic muse. Liszt - not bland.

And neither is this piece of music by Adès, which injects the dance of death theme with a wry, emotional focus. The work is written in memory of Adès’ musical hero, the Polish composer Witold Roman Lutosławski, weaving visceral strings, voices and brass around a dark text alongside a frieze that disappeared when Lübeck’s Marienkirche was bombed in WW2. The text involves Death dancing with an assortment of characters - the pope, a maiden, a monk, a child. Choosing to structure the work along these unusual lines shows great creativity; and a sensitivity to one of the spiritual foundations of Europe. Fear. I'm sure that Lutodlawksi himself would have approved. This is ambitious, serious, high art, even before the first note is played.

When the first note is played, you're straight in. A few bangs and crashes, and the baritone Simon Keenlyside roars into action against a highly percussive, contrapuntal and, frankly, scary orchestral backdrop. There are eight percussionists in this piece, and good use is made of all them, with lots of clanks, plonks and booms. This ain't Haydn.

The libretto is in German, and Keenlyside's voice is well suited to Death’s authoritative assertions and emotionally intelligent coaxings. Just when you think you have a handle on this jarring, percussive piece, in comes mezzo soprano, Christianne Stotijn, with deep, plaintive – but ultimately unsuccessful - appeals to Death's better nature. The oboe weaving around her pleas works well to heighten the surfacing desperation as the victim enters the dance. Adès demands much of his singers, and Stotijn has to make full use of her range, with some beautiful breathy lows.

What impressed me about this piece is Adès use of rhythms, which almost literally unbalance the listener, leaving sharp gaps with quick stutters amidst changing beats. (Captain Beefheart gets depressed and composes an orchestral piece about death? No, not that.)

The evocation of macabre dances is compelling, and at times one can almost hear the swish of Death's cape as he twirls his victims around. The use of a waltz for the death of the monk, is both funny and unsettling, with a strange flirtation going on between death and victim.

One soon gets a sense of the fatality of the beats. With every step, with every move, jerk, spasm, the life is being sapped from the victims. At one point in the music, the percussion seems to be clubbing the life out of the struggling victims. At times there are inescapable echoes of  Carmina Burana, particularly in the slow section when  Christianne Stotijn sings deeply and sadly against a menacing octavian piano beat. The cascades of strings pull us one and all down down down.

As one would expect of a first class Cambridge grad with honorary doctorates and prizes galore - who is only 42 and liked by the French - Adès' dance is clever and reflexive; but this cleverness does not overwhelm the music. Instead, it is an intelligent, highly emotional work, which bravely and creatively explores the theme of fear of death, confronting us with often contradictory emotional landscapes. It is, in other words, quite brilliant.