ADÉS: Trevot (2007). Violin Concerto "Concentric Paths" (2005). 3 Studies from Couperin (2006). Overture, Waltz, and Finale from Powder Her Face (2007).
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle; Anthony Marwood (violin); Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Thomas Adès; National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Paul Daniel.
EMI Classics 4 57813 2 (M) (DDD) TT: 66:43.

Thomas Adès currently enjoys the status of Next Great Hope of British Music. I rarely see why. Most of his "hits" either arouse my scorn (not necessarily a bad thing) or strike me as derivative (usually from Britten) and/or a colossal waste of time. Then he'll do something brilliant and sustained. Perhaps he still looks for his artistic self. I oppose him to the Scottish composer James MacMillan. Although MacMillan has written works I don't care for, he's also turned out more than his share of exciting, beautiful scores recognizably his. Nobody, not even Bach, catches fire all the time. Adès has, though rarely, and I don't feel his musical personality all that strongly, as I do MacMillan's.

This CD exemplifies my frustrations with Adès. I might as well get it out right away that I consider Tevot and the violin concerto almost as good as music gets. On the other hand, the Couperin Studies and the Powder Her Face dances, though well-made, merely take up time you could use to do something useful, like watching water come to a boil. Annotator Tom Service praises Adès's Couperin orchestrations, but to me it sounds like Couperin through a bad head cold. The full opera Powder Her Face -- with a libretto that disgusted me -- didn't have enough interesting music in it to fill a mite's pupik. With the purely instrumental, I don't get even the jolt of outrage. You can kindly call this music "eclectic" or "referential," but Adès has brought so little to the table, you wind up playing "guess the composer," as an alternative to actually engaging with the score.

But on to 'way better things.

Tevot (Hebrew for "arks" or "musical bars" -- don't ask why) -- a 22-minute, one-movement score impressed me no end, even though, again, Adès leans on other composers (mainly Britten) quite a bit. Nevertheless, he still comes up with something of his own. The piece consists of essentially two massive crescendos and a fade. One hears, in the opening, echoes of the first of the "sea interludes" from Peter Grimes, but turned to different expressive purposes. Where Britten sets up a tragedy, Adès moves to something more open-ended, exploratory, and takes us through a range of feeling including prayer, whimsy, striving, sardonicism, anger, and so forth, all with variations on a few simple motives. The textures can get quite complex as these motives replicate and overlap themselves and one another. Nevertheless, by choosing memorable thematic shapes and orchestrating cannily, Adès allows you to hear things clearly. After building to a brutal climax, the music winds down to a gorgeous passage (mainly strings) which emphasizes unusual harmonic changes. This leads to a condensed version of the opening, which builds and fades to near-stasis. A serene flute melody enters, and this provides much of the discussion of the second part. The mood becomes increasingly "nobilimente" (at least, what I like to think of as Adès channeling Elgar and Vaughan Williams), until we come to yet another variant of the opening music, with a splendid trumpet line in the final fade.

The Violin Concerto "Concentric Paths" strikes me as one of the best of recent years. Again, the music itself doesn't strike me as overwhelming original in its conception (like the John Adams concerto, for instance), but I find it extraordinarily beautiful. The structure, however, brims over with brilliant invention. The concerto consists of three movements -- titled "Rings," "Paths," and "Rounds" -- and each movement celebrates the idea of cyclical return in its own specific way. "Rings" has a violin skittering and soaring high above the orchestra and what sounds to me like a recurring harmonic progression -- perhaps not harmony, as a recurring contrapuntal movement of parts. The progression, however, seems to lead to different keys, rather than beginning and ending in the same place. The third movement -- jazzy and lively -- consists of overlapping cyclical patterns (prefiguring the method of Tevot), in certain places evoking a classical rondo.

The longest movement, the second ("Paths"), I find one of Adès deepest. It's Adès's version of a chaconne, and the chaconne it most strongly invokes in my mind is, believe it or not, Bach's for solo violin. For one thing, it runs only a few minutes less than the Bach. In fact, it lasts longer than the other two movements together. The orchestra turns the soloist into an über-violin, reinforcing the multi-voice stopping. Rests and hesitations take on equal importance with the sounded notes and give the movement weight and solemnity. Who would have thought the composer of Powder Her Face capable of gravitas?

Even more importantly, Adès's concerto shows almost no traces of Britten, perhaps a mark of a breakthrough to something quite personal. We'll need to hear more new works from the composer to sharpen the context of this one.

The performances are mostly superb. I don't care for the Couperin, but I can't blame Adès the conductor and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The composer's another story. Rattle and his Berlin band play with dedication a score that must have initially flummoxed even them. Adès should give thanks. I can certainly say the same of violinist Anthony Marwood. The Violin Concerto is not an easy score to shape, and the soloist needs stamina besides. Paul Daniel is one of my favorite youngish conductors. His British music series on Naxos has often thrilled me. He finds drama in the music (not surprising; he directed the English National Opera for eight years or so), even as Adès takes us through ersatz Weill and ersatz Bernstein and Barber. Daniel makes as convincing a case as he can for the Powder Her Face baubles (and even under Daniel, they come across as nothing more than that), but it's as if Adès's mind were musical fly-paper and what he presents is the bits of his listening history that stuck.

S.G.S. (August 2010)