Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Britten Sinfonia / Adès – Concentric Paths

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge,
Monday 20th February 2012

Couperin Les barricades misterieuses
Couperin arr. Thomas Adès Les baricades misterieuses
Thomas Adès Three Studies from Couperin
Ravel Le tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky Airs du rossignol and Marche chinoise
Stravinsky Suites Nos 1 & 2 for Small Orchestra
Thomas Adès Concerto for Violin (Concentric Paths)

Thomas Adès conductor
Pekka Kuusisto violin

The first half of the evening centred around re-workings of, works inspired by, and actual pieces by Francois Couperin: as such, it evidenced a fairly carefully-programmed selection, guaranteed not to offend the delicate sensibilities of a classical crowd, with the dissonant meat or medicine (Adès’ violin concerto) shoved to the end of the programme. Normally, mind you, it works the other way round: get the commission, or revived recent work – twenty minute concerto or programme piece, whatever – over and done with mercifully early, and then settle down for the guest soloist laying down some Mozart. James Dillon has complained at the way in which classical programmes still retain such an awkward and none too well managed balance between the ‘classics of yesteryear’ which are the clear preference of both traditionalist audiences, and, perhaps, orchestral players, and the new works which are, it is felt, somehow culturally necessary to avoid charges of total nostalgic regression. The idea that there might be a whole concert of ‘new music’ (which, in context, means anything atonal written from the ’40s onward) is a real rarity – which makes such instances as the ‘Total Immersion’ weekends at the Barbican gleaming havens amidst the mediocre sea of compromise (sorry, that phrasing is absurd).

Adès’ music – to get started on that right away – is technically accomplished, and it has some colour: the ‘Ecstasio’ movement of ‘Asyla’ does a diverting job of imitating the sounds of a club with a full orchestra, though it sounds little different than the re-arrangements of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher that the London Sinfonietta did a few years ago, and which have got nowhere near the same press. Still, I can’t help feeling that it remains something of a trick for the un-hip: classical audiences – or maybe not even audiences, maybe just composers who want to be seen as cool young things, bursting out of their stuffed shirts – are not too savvy with the real thing, with the pounding experience of hours on end of communal movement and throbbing bass and the surprising pared-back dissonance that can occur in dance music; but they find quirky and amusing and rather trickily skilful the imitation of such occasion. It’s like the stripper music in Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ (a piece for which I must admit to having something of a soft spot), or, most execrably, the appearance of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Hammered Out’, like a drunk dad trying to dance along at a wedding party. Needless to say, such projects fall flat on their face between two stools: maybe pop or rock or dance musicians seeking some sort of ‘credibility’ (let’s say, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, now a composer of soundtracks and even classically-premiered works), or maybe classical composers and musicians trying desperately to retain(?) some social relevance, to get down with the kids and with local communities (Charles Hazlewood’s various schemes in this regard perhaps the most polished and well-intentioned of such endeavours).

Adès’ work is not really an example of this, that ‘Asyla’ moment excepted, but it does share with it a kind of in-betweenness that I find, in the end, profoundly unsatisfying: constantly gesturing forward towards cluster and dissonance and extremes of orchestral colour – high violin lines against parping or muted trombones and tubas, the occasional string scrape or slightly woozy flute/bassoon combination – but drawing back almost straight away into a conventional chord resolution, a moment of ‘beautiful’ melody as if to reassure us that some such song still sings. What we get, then, is neither a truly memorable or beautiful melodic sense – fine, I’m down with that – but neither do we get anything truly radical to offset that: the orchestral colour thing has been done so much more interestingly by numerous composers – the high/low thing by Varese back in the 20s! –and the rhythmic sense is surprisingly lumpen. Compare Birtwistle’s cross-rhythms, the mechanically-driving sound of ‘Harrison’s Clocks’, a take on clockwork with affinities to the ubiquitous and now tired sounds of (post-)minimalism but with a sense of development and technical problem-solving or addressing that takes it far beyond the easy comforts of that mode of writing: or, for the pitching of fragile but continuous melody over rumbles and clouds of frighted and ominous discontent, the little-known ‘Grimethorpe Aria’, perhaps the finest work written for brass band by a classical composer. Adès’ violin concerto was, in the end, remarkably traditional, for all its apparently spiky outer-garments: in three movements, the slow one in the middle, orchestra playing support to soloist, never challenging or questioning or really much interacting with the violin’s continuing ‘concentric paths’ of vaguely folk-ish, vaguely anguished, non-directional melody, spinning on through no real development or contradiction in furrowed-brow meander. There were moments, of course – in particular, the gleeful/ominous devil’s dance at the very start of the third movement (though this was quickly sidestepped for something more lyrically effusive) – but I find it hard to see how The Guardian’s Peter Culshaw could read in Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and The Rite of Spring, a ‘gorgeous bluesy tune’, and a ‘close-to-techno beat’, let alone laugh at that movement’s ‘audaciousness’, as he claims to have done. Iannis Xenakis’ electronic works, or the ferocious rugged struggle of his concerti, have more in common with the spirit of dance music as its most radical or rock music at its most radical than Adès’ nods in that direction – and I fail to see who, really, the latter are for, in the end. The middle-aged-to-old people I was sitting behind smiled through the Couperin (which was beautiful, and beautifully-played – Adès’ gifts as a pianist are not in doubt); the Couperin arrangements (which were often skilful, and sometimes flashed rather deliciously odd textures, through muted brass or marimba or a gentle tug at the emotional register (for which, compare Glenn Gould’s Chopinesque take, in his 1955 recording, on the 25th of Bach’s Goldberg Variations), turning the music keening and quasi-tragic, while keeping it under its original wraps (that restraint, of course, being part of the music’s charm and, I wouldn’t say difficulty, but mode of careful and sustained attention); and the Ravel (for which, yes, I was smiling too – let’s even say that I find the more bittersweet moments quite moving, in fact, having listened to this piece over and over over the past few years, feeling its nuances, the sudden shifts from reverie to an almost-enforced helter-skelter jollity which, through its dignity and slight restraint, retains something of that preceding sorrow). They sat through the Stravinsky, aided by the faux-exotic Chinoiserie of the ‘Marche Chinoise’ (which for me was really a sour note after the ‘Airs du Rossignol’, a piece nicely tough in texture, its birdsong imitations even gesturing towards Messiaen, the piano clanging and hard, the violin rough and thick, folk-music style, not the thin-edged pious wail of its salon- or Hollywood-music incarnation), and jollied along by the shambolic-smooth dances of the Suites for orchestra; and then they grimaced their way through the Adès, taking their medicine (a medicine that nonetheless managed to inspire the apparently contagious malady of the auditorium coughing round), clearly not impressed by the ‘further-out’ moments, nor too drawn in by the melodics that one felt were in some sense written for them (am I being unfair here?). OK, so if this music ended up not being for them, fine: neither was it it for me. It just doesn’t have that purity of intention, attention, technique dedicated towards the solving of formal problems that in some sense matter, historically, even (to get all Adornian on y’all). I can just think of so many other composers, in different modes and from different times, to whom I would rather listen – and this isn’t limited to Adès, it’s something I find distressingly prevalent across a whole spectrum of middling, quasi-dissonant but none-too-adventurous composers, particularly British ones – something, no doubt, to do with our island parochialism (Adès has written a piece called ‘O Albion’, the soft counterpart to Finnissy’s rigorously impossible ‘English Country Tunes’ (a work I don’t love, but which one cannot but admire) or even James MacMillan’s slightly sub-Ivesian, yet nicely rowdy ‘Britannia’ and football-piano-concerto ‘The Beserking’). Even, say, the utter unswerving devotional pitch of Tavener’s ‘Protecting Veil’ wins out, for me, over the similar moments in the Adès concerto where a high solo line is placed over a low pitched orchestra. And to those who argue that such compromise is necessary because of the inhuman, academic excesses of straw-man-serialism (“I remember starting the first rehearsal and thinking, I'm making this noise! It was so--you know--modern. It really did sound like horrible modern music”), I’d put the question: how much more bonkers richness is there in any number of pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen, how much more unworldly eeriness (mingled with fierce political commitment) is there in a piece by Helmut Lachenman, how much better did Luciano Berio deal with the whole tradition of classical music and with contemporary culture in his works, how much more richly coloured and attractively, endlessly inventive is Pierre Boulez’s superlative ‘Derive II’? For Christ’s sake, how much more radical and more alive is the music of the 103-year-old Elliott Carter? And there let it end. (I did dig the Ravel, the Couperin, the Stravinsky (in part) – honest.)

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