Stimulating, varied Musikfest concert from Thomas Adès and the Berlin Philharmonic

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2022 [9] – Berlioz, Barry, Adès: Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Berliner Philharmoniker / Thomas Adès (conductor). Phlharmonie Berlin, 11.9.2022. (CC)

Thomas Adès conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © Stephan Rabold

Berlioz – Overture, Les Francs-Juges, Op.3 / H.23 (1826, rev. 1829, 1833)

Adès – Violin Concerto, ‘Concentric Paths’ (1986); The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020)

Gerald BarryCheveaux-de-frise (1987)

This was an auspicious occasion – the conducting debut of the once Wunderkind composer/conductor Thomas Adès with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Adès’s catalogue of works is impressive indeed, and it is good that two were featured here. His programmes, whether as pianist or conductor, are always stimulating – here, he opted to start with a Berlioz Overture, Les Francs-Juges, an overture to an unfinished opera which was to be to a libretto by Humbert Ferrand. Certainly, most of what Berlioz actually wrote for the opera remains out of reach (he destroyed it) but the overture remains and has retained favour to some extent. (This is despite the Overture-Concert-Symphony format being less generally prevalent than at one time). One can see how Adès might be attracted to Berlioz, both mavericks who carved his own way, both blessed with huge imaginations. There are real parallels between the two – both are geniuses of orchestration, too.

There are many fine recorded performances of this overture – perhaps in terms of pure electricity, it is Toscanini’s 1941 New York performance that is most compelling (available on both Music & Arts and Immortal Performances labels). Adès highlighted Berlioz’s daring use of gesture while the Berliner Philharmoniker’s violins showed no sense of strain in the upper reaches. The grandeur of the opening Adagio co-existed with the active and characterful Allegro assai. Berlioz’s music is descriptive of his subjects – perhaps most obviously in the portentous writing describing the judges in the medieval German tale of the libretto. Adès’s major achievement was to persuade the listener that the ink was not yet dry on Berlioz’s score, such was the freshness, achieved through that very sense of modernity and, within that, a thrilling sense of musical adventure. The discipline of the performance was everything one might expect from this orchestra – but it was the spirit that counted.

Pekka Kuusisto at Musikfest Berlin 2022 © Stephan Rabold

Concentric Paths’, Adès’s Violin Concerto, was actually co-commissioned by the Berliner Festspiele (alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic); its premiere took place next door, in the Kammermusiksaal on September 4, 2005, with Andrew Marwood as soloist and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the composer’s baton. In terms of titling, the Faber Music Limited score shows ‘Violin Concerto, “Concentric Paths”’ is correct.

Adès describes his Violin Concerto as a triptych, in the sense that the centre of gravity is the extended central section, named ‘Paths’. It is surrounded by the first movement, ‘Rings’, and the finale, ‘Rounds’. The idea of circularity is manifested in music via cycles, which operate on the macrostructure as well as on the micro – so ‘Paths’ consists of two large-scale circularities/cycles, while on the immediate, surface level Adès employs a multitude of much smaller circular ideas. The composer talks of ‘different orbits’ of material in the first movement, while the finale’s cycles work more in harmony with each other, moving the music towards its conclusion. I reported on one of Pekka Kuusisto’s previous performances of the work, with the Britten Sinfonia and Adès at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2012 (review here); there is also a recording of Marwood with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Adès on Warner. while Kuusisto has recorded it on a DG disc Music of the Spheres with the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon.

It is easy to hear Minimalism in the first movement, ‘Rings’, particularly the opening which not only holds that repetition of motif but also a harmony that is not entirely divorced from Glass’s shade of Minimalism; but if it is, it is quickly subsumed into Adès’s much darker world as punctuating, almost threatening lower simultaneities cloud the music’s brightness. Kuusisto is a charismatic violinist, and he absolutely has full measure of Adès’s stratospherically high writing. At one point, the orchestra join him up there and one is reminded of a similarly avian passage in Britten’s Violin Concerto. This performance brought a luminosity to the movement I had not heard so strikingly before, perhaps to maximise contrast with ‘Paths’, that extended second movement. In contrast to the ongoing music of the first movement, here gesture, initially at least, is all. One can link certain aspects to the first movement in terms of the punctuating (and later, roiling) lower brass, but in this central panel the music expands, with the violin easing its way towards a powerful lyricism. There was a visceral edge to his performance that was far more powerful than in Kuusisto’s recording. The finale, ‘Rounds’, takes a circling theme that seems to move up and down in the pitch space like a feather on the wind. I wonder if the homogenising of the wind section in this movement was deliberate? They sounded, to my ears, just a touch monochrome – but how virtuoso was Kuusisto’s playing, a miracle of velocity and intonation, the close the perfect throwaway gesture.

It is worth noting that Adès’s must be one of the most recorded of recent violin concertos. There is the Kuusisto and Marwood recordings mentioned above, plus Peter Herresthal with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Andrew Manze on BIS and also Augustin Hadelich with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Hannu Lintu on Avie. And we should remember that this is hardly the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first experience of Adès – Sir Simon Rattle chose Asyla for his debut as Chief Conductor with the orchestra.

While on the DG album the programme had inserted an ‘encore’ of David Bowie’s Life on Mars (in an arrangement by John Barber), here in the Philharmonie, Kuusisto gave a fabulous rendition of Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever for solo violin. Apart from giving us the title and group, there was no spoken introduction, so one has to wonder is this was a tribute of some sort to Queen Elizabeth II (possibly an affectionately flippant one, given the title?).

Despite his popularity, Gerald Barry’s music has not always impressed – his first opera The Intelligence Park (1990) at Covent Garden’s Linbury Theatre in 2019 was a case in point (review here). The title Chevaux-de-frise refers to metal spikes designed to defend against cavalry charges in the seventeenth century, and the piece itself marks the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada (which suffered considerable losses as it retreated around the west coast of Ireland). There is an aggressive edge to Barry’s writing right from the outset in the heavy, equally accented chords. There is, perhaps, a post-Stravinsky feel to the angularity of lines. Barry’s piece is utterly relentless for extended amounts of time; his feeling of rhythmic disjunction (which starts towards the middle of the piece) is effectively done. All credit to the Berlin players, as some of those disjunctions could easily sound messy, but there was a thread of confidence running through these performers. There is a notable, cacophonous ‘Ivesian moment’ (about 11 or 12 minutes in) followed by manic, glistening repetitions at speed that points to just how bonkers this music is, and certainly both orchestra and conductor revelled in it.

Finally, the symphony that Adés derived from his third opera, The Exterminating Angel, itself an adaptation of the famous film by Luis Buñuel. The opera is magnificent (see my review of the 2017 UK premiere at Covent Garden here). The ‘Berceuse’ from Adès’s opera has gained some currency, and the symphony will doubtless follow suit – it was only completed in 2020 and premiered in August 2021 (just over a year ago) by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – and indeed these forces will tour America with this piece in October this year.

There are four movements: ‘Entrances’ (of the ill-fated guests at the post-opera party – they all arrive twice – the film is Surrealist); ‘March’ (ferocious and obsessive, so making something of a parallel with the Barry); ‘Berceuse’ (in contrast, sweetly lyrical); and finally, ‘Waltzes’ (which takes on a distinctly worrying aspect). The question here is what happens when one constrains – or adapts – operatic music into a symphonic framework? Hindemith famously did so in his Mathis der Maler Symphony, and there are parallels here (interestingly, harmonic ones between Adès and Hindemith as well, it seemed to me). It is part of Adès’s art that he can take music of such vast remit – from wondrously cheeky to brazenly Romantic – and create a convincing, substantive, standalone statement. The luscious met the crystalline and intrinsically beautiful in a four-panel processional. The symphony is a magnificent achievement – as is the opera itself.

Adès has one of the prime requisites of a great composer – his musical fingerprint is instantly recognisable. The orchestra seemed to respond to his sheer talent with a performance of laser focus. A fine close to a stimulating, varied concert.

At the time of writing, this concert is being edited for the Berliner Philharmonkier’s Digital Concert Hall and should be available soon at this link.

Colin Clarke

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