Perfectly Programmed Concert Ranges from Couperin to Adès

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Couperin, Couperin (arr. Adès), Adès and Stravinsky: Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Britten Sinfonia / Thomas Adès (conductor and piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.2.2012. (CC)

Couperin – Les barricades misterieuses
Couperin – (arr. Adès) Les barricades misterieuses
Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky – Air du Rossignol and Marche chinoise; Suites Nos 1 & 2 for small orchestra
Adès – Violin Concerto

It was good to see a healthy turn out for this challenging and rewarding concert. I confess to finding Adès’ works fussy and clever for their own sake in the past. It was good to have a reminder of the raw talent of this still young and tremendously successful composer, as well as having the last work in the concert cause me to have a major rethink. Adès is famed for his programming skills, and so it was that on this particular evening everything fell perfectly in place. The Britten Sinfonia responded superbly to Adès’ direction.

The concert began with Adès the pianist on offer in some (Francois) Couperin, Les barricades misteriuses of around 1717. The performance was fascinating, with the pianist using the resources of the modern grand (including pedal) freely. At one point there was an intimation of Jacques Loussier before an ensemble of piano, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola, cello and double bass gave Adès’ own version of the self-same piece. A softer-edged take, it was beautifully delivered.

Adès’ own Three Studies from Couperin (“Les amusements”, “Les tours de passe-passe” and “L’ame-en-peine”) continued the fascinating theme of re-examining and recontextualising Couperin’s music, this time in a 2006 reimagining for orchestra of two string ensembles with brass, woodwind and percussion. The first mixed Romantic gesture with distancing displacements resulted in something of a transmogrification of the original. The spring-like second piece was fresh and had plenty of humour and, quite appropriately given the other composer in the concert so far unconsidered, hints of Stravinsky in the cadences. The final piece was an impressive processional.

Couperin famously inspired Ravel, of course, and the orchestral Tombeau was given here with a good deal of panache. The oboe solos (Nicholas Daniel) were stunning throughout. There was plenty of character all round here, in fact, culminating in a fast and energetic finale.

The second half of the concert began with a couple of pieces for violin and piano originally intended for Stravinsky for himself and Samuel Dushkin to play, both from the early opera The Nightingale (1909-1914). Kuusisto played with great energy and excellent variety of tone, and Adès proved himself a worthy accompanist. The Suites found Kuusisto acting as pianist with the orchestra (the Suites are arrangements of short piano works). The total of eight movements breezed past in a glittering parade of wit; the orchestra certainly enjoyed themselves. If the strings sounded rather lacking in body, there was nevertheless plenty of fun.

Finally, Adès’ Violin Concerto of 2005, subtitled “Concentric Paths”. Adès sees the work as a triptych with the central panel taking the most attention. It begins with a moto perpetuo which flirts with minimalism. Kuusisto was exceptionally fine in the ultra-high passages Adès torments his soloist with; the glacial scoring is a wonder. But whereas in many other scores there is tracery aplenty that enchants the ear but little real emotional substance, this work has an emotional core that becomes obvious in the central movement. Kuusisto was mesmeric in the cadenza (set against subterranean growls and rumbles). Adès’ dark side surfaces in the finale, where cycles intersecting at different points (hence the work’s title). This is a work of real impact, and it seemed the perfect way to close this memorable concert.

Colin Clarke