Thomas Adès and Friends Help to Inaugurate Milton Court

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Barry, Adès, Stravinsky: Thomas Adès (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Louise Hopkins (cello), Milton Court, London, 6.11.2013 (GDn)

Britten: Suite for Violin and Piano Op. 6
Barry: Low for clarinet and piano
Adès: Lieux retrouvés, Catch, Court Studies
Stravinsky: Suite from The Soldier’s Tale

Thomas Adès is the ideal artist for Milton Court, and Milton Court the ideal venue for Thomas Adès. In the few weeks the new hall has been open it has been put through its paces by all manner of ensembles, from large choirs to string quartets. The acoustic is good, but it has its own identity, which hasn’t always suited the performers, at least not until they’ve gotten used to its ways. The sound is very immediate, giving instrumental colours an almost tactile quality. It is resonant without being especially warm. Everything comes across with real clarity, and even at the quietest dynamics, the sound is always arresting.

Much the same could be said of Adès, both as composer and pianist. His music is filled with dark, translucent colours, rarely abrasive but always imposing. Whatever dynamic or tempo he employs, he always ensures a clarity of texture that gives his music a sense of openness and honesty. And at the piano, too, he is always projecting textures and colours, propelled by a skittish energy, but giving every element within the texture its due exposure. So the Milton Court acoustic plays to his strengths. The sound here may not be enveloping and comfortable like at the Wigmore, but Adès has no interest in comfort. He specialises in music with an edge, textures with focus that communicate directly to the listener, and this hall is clearly in sympathy with his intentions.

The programme opened with Britten’s early Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6. By the standards of mature Britten, this is radical music, filled with Bartók-inspired acerbic textures. But coming from Adès and Anthony Marwood it sounded even more extreme. Marwood played most of the work with a bright, penetrating tone, qualities again emphasised by the hall. Adès followed suit, giving the piano part a buzzing, electric quality, jittery and impulsive, but also filled out with well-weighted and fully-sustained sonorities. Almost everything that followed was from recent times, yet this 1934 work, in the hands of Adès and Marwood, came across as the most modern on the programme.

Gerald Barry doesn’t give a lot away with the title of his clarinet and piano work Low, nor with his seven word programme note “It is sometimes high and sometimes low”, but the piece is fairly self-explanatory. The clarinet and piano are equal partners in the duet, and for the most part the piano plays a single line, often in rhythmic unison and at an equal dynamic with the clarinet. The rhythms are fast and irregular, and get faster as the work goes on. In fact, it turns into a feat of endurance towards the end for clarinettist Matthew Hunt, and although the strain showed in the last minute or two, he made it safely to the end.

Lieux retrouvés is a major work for cello and piano, in which Adès explores a range of involved textures and ideas over the course of four substantial movements. Adès’ writing for the cello is as idiomatic and imaginative as his writing for the piano, and a range of extended techniques is employed, but never merely for effect. The piano part owes much to Ligeti’s Études, like them it often relies on flowing but metrically ambiguous textures. Cellist Louise Hopkins struggled with much of this music, understandably given its obvious difficulty, and her intonation was unsteady throughout. Fortunately her work in the second half of the concert was far better.

A Soldier’s Tale was on the abrasive side: needlessly difficult listening. The performance was very much led by Marwood, his violin counter-rhythms dominating even the more regular piano part, although Adès was able to fit it in beneath without too much trouble. But there was little sense of ensemble here, and the three players seemed in opposition, each trying to spit out their rhythms more brutally and abrasively than the others. All of Stravinsky’s clever rhythms came through, but few of his clever harmonies.

Catch is the nearest Adès’ music gets to comedy, I suspect. It is written for piano trio with itinerant clarinet. The clarinettist is offstage at the start and spends the whole work mobile, coming and going, playing backstage and in the hall. But Adès isn’t playing this for laughs. The focus of attention is always the three stationary players, and their music seems both dictated by the clarinet’s obbligato line and the player’s position relative to the ensemble. Adès’ textures are as clear and beguiling as ever, although his motivations for once are obscure in the extreme.

To end, the Court Studies freely adapted from Adès’ opera The Tempest. Any notions of levity, however slight, were immediately quashed by this very serious music. The programme note tells us that the music comes from scenes of dialogue and argument, but for the most part this work seems homophonic and unified in its textures and outlook. What great music it is! No tricks here, and no gimmicks, just well-conceived and well-realised musical ideas, expertly paced and, as ever with Adès, expertly voiced among the four instruments.

Milton Court is clearly going to be a great asset for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and its uses are going to stretch far beyond just student recitals. The theme of tonight’s event was prestige, the school showing off both its former students (all four were ex-GSMD) and its fabulous new facilities. In the cut-throat world of London music colleges, where getting an upper hand on your rivals can have significant benefits, this approach is understandable, and I was certainly impressed. The event was the first in an “Alumni Recital Series”, with appearances to follow from Anne Sofie von Otter, Tasmin Little and Toby Spence. Star performers indeed, and in this exciting new performing space, all are sure to shine.

Gavin Dixon

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