ADÈS: America: A Prophecy, Op. 19. The
Fayrfax Carol. Fool's Rhymes, Op. 5. January Writ.
Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin, Op
3a. The Lover in Winter. Life Story, Op. 8. Cardiac Arrest.
Les Baricades mistérieuses (Couperin-Adès). Brahms, Op. 21.
Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano; Claron McFadden, soprano; Christopher Maltman,
baritone; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Tom Poster/Huw Watkins, pianists;
Hugh Webb, harp; Richard Benjafield, percussion; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent,
organist; Composers Ensemble; City of Birmingham Chorus and Orch/Thomas
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Boredom on a stupefying scale. This will be quick. I don't particularly
enjoy writing about music I dislike and consequently don't very often.
However, Adès has received so much notice, I feel compelled to
throw in my worthless opinion.
Thomas Adès (pronounced "Addis?") is currently the fair
son of British music. Why, I can't tell you. I got sucked into what I
consider the hype surrounding him and bought recordings of both Asyla and Powder
Her Face. Fortunately, I can't remember much about either
of them. It's really more of the same here. I know Britain has better
composers than Adès currently about, because I've heard them.
Some of them are even younger than forty. Why is this guy getting work?
I should be clear. There are many types of bad composers. It's not that
Adès is unskilled. He's not an autodidactic Self-Proclaimed Genius
who has no idea of the lowest note of the oboe or how he can find out.
His orchestration is often brilliant and imaginative. However, I find
more real music in Brian Wilson's "Help Me, Rhonda" than in
any work by Adès. America: A Prophecy, for example, steals its
title, and nothing else, from Blake. It's a lament for the Mayans and
their conquest and genocide by Spain. The music essentially varies a
modal cell, representing the Indians, and juxtaposes it with some 16th-century
Spanish music. There's a painterly battle between the two groups of ideas,
and the Spanish win. Sounds interesting on paper, but not in performance.
The vocal part doesn't illuminate the text in any way -- one of those
lines with the expressive power of a slide whistle's aimless tootles.
All of the vocal music here suffers from that -- trendy texts set to
supremely uninteresting and unnecessary music. The music adds nothing
to the texts themselves. The two instrumental arrangements -- one of
Madness's "Cardiac Arrest" and another of Couperin's "Les
Baricades mistérieuses" -- engaged me the most, mainly because
of the orchestration. When scoring is the only thing you can talk about,
the music is in real trouble.
The performances, however, are wonderful. Soprano Claron McFadden delivers
a knockout in Life Story. I've never heard a singer with her command
of line and of seamless travel between classical and jazz singing. She
convinces you totally. Adès specifies the model of Billie Holiday.
McFadden pulls it off without the curse of artifice. Baritone Christopher
Maltman sings like the great Lieder artist he is in Brahms, to a text
by Alfred Brendel. The piece, I admit, is fun, mainly for all the Brahms
references (particularly the second of the Vier ernste Gesänge).
However, again Adès fails to find the song in the text.
It's a first-class production, and who, other than the composer, really
S.G.S. (September 2004)