ADÈS Piano Concerto. Totentanz

Kirill Gerstein; Mark Stone; Christianne Stotijn; Boston Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès


The Gramophone Review

So is this the last Romantic piano concerto? It might well be; but the work’s precursor In Seven Days – arguably a more focused masterpiece – shows that Adès can do more interesting things with form (and the fertility of a small motif) than when lifting a footprint from centuries ago. There are moments when his 2018 Concerto acknowledges the very precise rotational form of In Seven Days: the treatment of the motif in the first movement (though effect trumps genuine metamorphosis) and the central Andante’s winding-down in a mirror image of the other score’s winding-up.

Otherwise we are in the footsteps of Rachmaninov, from the opening pounce to the moments of repose and loneliness, the virtuosity, the whimsical hand separation, the ‘composed’ rubato, the glitz and glamour, the sure-fire burning-out of the first movement (typical of Adès as well as of the Russian) and the slightly hollow hyperactivity of the last. It’s not hard to hear how the work has already had 50 performances scheduled, as it demands that both soloist and orchestra thrill. Are there too many pastiches – the music about music Adès does so well but with an undeniable touch of gaucheness? Yes, but they never last long and the orchestration is beguiling. So sit back and enjoy the ride, the energy, the density of the conversation and the utter brilliance with which it is realised horizontally down the page.

‘For proof that Adès does what he does with mind-boggling brilliance, look no further’

Because anyway it might be Totentanz (2013) that’s the true successor to In Seven Days. This proven masterpiece has inexplicably had to wait until now for the release of its first recording and is another work in which the composer rotates a motif (albeit a narrative one) multiple times and proves the fertility of his mind and architectural prowess in so doing. Gerstein and the Boston Symphony pull the piano concerto off with flair but this performance is a cut above. The score – in which Mark Stone’s death lures Christianne Stotijn’s procession of 16 characters from pope to infant into the grave – has had something of a renaissance in the past few years, Adès conducting those soloists (as here) in performances around the world.

But it can hardly have sounded as focused or as forensically brilliant as in Boston, with the same structural nous, sustained tension (tempos and volume are expertly ratcheted) and pronounced undertow. The latter comes surely from Adès’s understanding of his own use of cyclic structures, passacaglia and chord sequencing (a favourite one pops up in ‘Der Tod zum Kardinal’) but also from vivid characterisation and potent orchestral playing; the ferocity at the end of ‘Der Tod zum König’ is overwhelming. Christianne Stotijn dials down the lighting but not the intensity in ‘Der Küster’ and ‘Das Mädchen’, and even Mark Stone’s splendidly Mephistophelean Death offers her a warm hand in ‘Das Kind’, for which Adès invokes the ghost of a strophic song somewhere between Schubert and Mahler in lineage. Plenty of composers have moved on. But for proof that Adès does what he does with mind-boggling brilliance, look no further.

(Andrew Mellor, May 2020)

The Contemporary Award is sponsored by PPL

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