United Kingdom Adès, Barry and Stravinsky: Thomas Trotter (organ), Toby Spence (tenor), Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (speaker), Trinity Boys Choir, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Thomas Adès (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 11.4.2018. (AS)
Adès – Powder Her Face Suite (UK premiere)
Barry – Organ Concerto (London premiere)
Stravinsky – Perséphone
Thomas Adès’s first opera, produced in 1995 when the composer was aged just 24, created quite a stir at the time. It is based on the story of an elderly Duchess (in all but name the notorious Duchess of Argyll), who on the brink of eviction from her hotel room, recalls her colourful life in a series of flashbacks. So we have scenes from her extravagant 1936 wedding, her husband and his mistress’s search for evidence of against her in the 1950s, the Hotel Manager’s dismissal of her protestations and so on. In 2007 the composer arranged three sections of the work, originally written for four singers and an ensemble of 15 players, as Dances from Powder Her Face for large orchestra, and last year he was commissioned to add further orchestrations to form a suite of eight movements, played continuously over a span of about half an hour.
It is interesting that Adès should revisit his younger self, but not surprising, since the music has an attractive freshness and youthful energy, and he has imbued the original material with some highly imaginative scoring. The suite’s overture opens with a dizzying welter of jazzy 1930s rhythms, played in an apparently random fashion by various wind and other soloists, and the later movements include an ironic sounding wedding waltz, a frenetic Paperchase by the husband and mistress, a pompous horn solo impersonating the Hotel Manager’s declaration of eviction, and a final lively section where a maid and an electrician mix the task of clearing the Duchess’s room with what the programme note delicately described as ‘some dalliance’. The suite forms a highly effective concert piece, and what emerges is not only Adès’s impressive level of invention and craftsmanship, but also a sense of high spirits and fun. With the composer’s strong beat and expert baton technique well in evidence one could be sure that the performance was exactly as it should have been.
Gerald Barry’s Organ Concerto was given its world premiere by Thomas Trotter, with Adès conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in early March, and this was its first London performance. The composer wrote his own, highly entertaining programme note in which he described his own eccentric early career as an organist, having graduated to that instrument from the harmonium in his local church in County Clare. And so his work contains a passage for solo harmonium. We also get the solemn solo sounds of a bell representing the Angelus at noon, a signal that everybody should stop what they are doing and pray or meditate. An unexpected influence was a peculiar cat called Blue Gadoo, photographed in the programme, whose strange expression clearly indicated to Barry that it was mourning the loss of atonality. So he put the cat’s fight for atonality against tonality into the concerto.
As one would expect from all this, the Concerto is a riot of sound contrasts, beginning with a series of jagged jabs from organ and orchestra, and then orchestral pandemonium, with a mass of confused noise topped by the sound of trumpets playing at full blast. And so the 20-minute work proceeds, a jazzy hymn here, scales starting on timpani cellos and ending high on a piccolo elsewhere, and so on. At the end of the Concerto organ and orchestra join in the hymn ‘Humiliated and Insulted’, which does rather go on for too long.
All in all, though, there is an impression of a composer not taking himself or his work terribly seriously, and as in the Adès this sense of high spirits makes the piece easily enjoyable. Thomas Trotter, the LPO and Adès gave a hugely energetic and committed performance.
After the first half the high neoclassical seriousness of Stravinsky’s masterful Perséphone made the strongest possible contrast. Adès is evidently a great admirer of Stravinsky (he has conducted productions of The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden and Zürich) and his direction of the work was sympathetic and in perfect style. There was however a certain tension in the orchestral response where the mood should be one of repose, and very slight hints of uncertainty suggested that with two new works to be rehearsed for this concert an extra bit of time for the Stravinsky would not have come amiss, since this score is a rarity and will not have been well known by the players.
At first Toby Spence did not seem to be in very best voice, but soon his depth of tone and volume of delivery improved and his assumption of the dual roles of narrator and the priest Eumolpus was very sound. Dame Kristin Scott Thomas brought the right degree of gravity and restrained emotion in her assumption of the role of Perséphone, though a touch more volume output from her microphone might have made her contribution still more impressive. Listeners to the live BBC Radio 3 relay might have experienced a better balance. The London Philharmonic Choir, especially the ladies on their own in the early part of the work, sang with the style and expertise we have come to expect of it, and the Trinity Boys Choir, singing from memory, made a good contribution both in its independent contribution towards the end of the work, and then in ensemble with the ladies of the main choir.
It was generally a satisfactory account of the work as a whole, but it didn’t erase memories of the superbly assured performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra et al under Esa-Pekka Salonen given in the same hall in September 2016.
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