First Italian performance of Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto

ItalyItaly Dukas, Adès, R. Strauss: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). National Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, 5.2.2022. (GP)

Kirill Gerstein, Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (c) Santa Cecilia Academy

Paul Dukas – L’Apprenti sorcier
Thomas Adès – Piano Concerto
Richard Strauss – Also sprach Zarathrusta

Thomas Adès is a major contemporary composer. With George Benjamin, his compatriot, he is one of the two greatest living British composers. He is also a well-known pianist and conductor. At 41, he had already earned a place in the National Portrait Gallery in London where his portrait hangs between those of Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar. He aroused scandal when at 24 he composed and staged the chamber opera Powder Her Face. Unusually long (two hours and twenty minutes of music), it revolves around the sexual exploits of Margaret Duchess of Argyll, aka ‘The Dirty Duchess’. The work, staged for the first time in Great Britain (with great success) in 1995, arrived in Rome in November 2002 on the initiative of the Roman Philharmonic Academy and the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti (IU- University Institution of Concerts) At the time, the Baroque style ‘fellatio aria’ earned it the nickname ‘porn-opera’.

A more recent work by Adès, The Tempest, commissioned by the Covent Garden Royal Opera House has already been seen in Copenhagen, Strasbourg, Santa Fe, Lübeck, at the Met in New York and Quebec Opera. The Tempest is due to arrive soon at La Scala, where it is scheduled for November 2022. However, in 2012 the National Santa Cecilia Academy performed a short version of some particularly impressive scenes in a concert conducted by Adès himself and preceded by a meeting at the Maxxi (Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art) with a screening of the version available on DVD. The concert also included Asyla, (a four-part Adès symphony commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker).

The audience at the National Santa Cecilia Academy is traditionalist, if not downright conservative; so some were fascinated, others perplexed. Based on the scenes presented, The Tempest is quite different compared to the eclectic Powder Her Face (very much focused on virtuoso numbers and Sprechgesang). In The Tempest, singing characterizes the characters: a solemn line for Prospero (baritone Christopher Maltman), coloratura virtuosity for Ariel (mezzo soprano Audrey Luna) and tender duets for Miranda (soprano Rosita Frisani) and Ferdinando (tenor David Portillo).

I do not know if in Italy audiences will ever see and hear Adès’s absolute masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel. I attended the world premiere in Salzburg in July 2015. Co-produced with Covent Garden, the New York Met and Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, the opera was greeted by a twenty minute standing ovation in Salzburg. It has a tonal structure, strongly polyphonic (on stage there are fifteen characters), and with arias, duets and concertato as well as declaimed singing. It requires a large orchestra with unconventional instruments: for example, the introduction consists of the sounds of bells and for the first time in Adès electronic music transpires (ondes Martenot a delicate and profound sound of an exterminating angel, seductive and destructive at once). Slow and almost obsessive in the first part, the work takes on a pressing rhythm in the two interludes and in the second part, ending with a liberating concluding concertato. The opera calls for fifteen great voices.

While we wait for La Scala or the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma to stage The Exterminating Angel, the National Santa Cecilia Academy brought to Rome – on the evenings of 3, 4 and 5 February – Adès’s Piano Concerto. It had its debut in Boston in March 2019. The pianist, Kirill Gerstein, is the artist who premiered the work and has recorded it, with Adès himself conducting. This was a welcome effort to bring Roman audiences closer to contemporary music The piece was cleverly set between two symphonic poems well known to Santa Cecilia concertgoers: L’Apprenti sorcier  (The Sorcerer’sApprentice) by Paul Dukas and Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

Let us dwell on the piano concerto by Adès. It has three movements: Allegramente, Andante gravemente, Allegro gioioso and is around twenty-two minutes long. It is a piece of great harmonic clarity treated with originality. The rhythmic metric structure is sophisticated and complex as well as dense with quotations (especially from American composer Conlon Nancarrow). The orchestration is colorful and brilliant, a dialogue is between a virtuoso pianist and a large orchestra. The first movement is full of rhythm, the second almost gloomy, the third electrifying. The soloist and the orchestra are in close conversation. The audience was enthusiastic and asked for an encore: Kirill Gerstein performed a short but brilliant overture for solo piano by Adès.

There is little to say about the other two pieces. They were performed with great expertise. But in Also sprach Zarathustra, in my opinion, conductor Sir Antonio Pappano should have shown more passion, not merely professionalism.

Giuseppe Pennisi

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