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World premiere highlights absorbing program

Chan Centre for the Performing Arts
03/14/2009 -  
Thomas Adès: Concert Paraphrase on "Powder Her Face"
Leos Janácek: On an Overgrown Path, Book II
Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt: Isolde’s Liebestod
Sergei Prokofiev: Sarcasmes, Op. 17
Franz Schubert: Allegretto in C minor, D. 915
Ludwig van Beethoven: Bagatelles, Op. 126

Thomas Adès (Pianist)

T. Adès (© Vancouver Recital Society)

Noted composer/pianist/conductor Thomas Adès premiered his new work, Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face”, at his recital for the Vancouver Recital Society. (The VRS is co-commissioner of the work, along with San Francisco Performances and Londons’ Barbican Centre.) He has freely arranged music from four scenes from his sensational 1995 opera in an order somewhat different from their appearance in the work: “Ode to Joy” (Scene One – and “Joy” is a perfume); “Is Daddy Squiffy?” (Scene Five); “Fancy Being Rich!” (Scene Four); and “It is Too Late” (Scene Eight). The four sections are played without a break and the work lasts about 15 minutes.

What was interesting about the recital’s unusual program was the context within which the new work was placed. It turns out that it shares musical characteristics with all four items preceding it. The program opened with Janácek’s borderline obscure On an Overgrown Path, Book II, a group of short movements characterized by brief, hesitant lines and a romanticism undercut by astringency. (Adès omitted one of the movements – the brief Vivo – as he claims it was not fully completed by Janacek and as a composer himself, he did not want to perform an incomplete work by another composer.)

The second piece, Liszt’s paraphrase on Isolde’s Liebestod, was a complete contrast. The piano sounded like a totally different instrument for one thing, and the work is a flowing whole. One wants breathtaking, ecstatic lift-off from a performance of this music, and Adès achieved it.

Then it was back to a group of short pieces, with Prokofiev’s five Sarcasmes, composed while he was still a bumptious student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In the first, Tempestoso, the notes tumble over themselves. In the Allegro rubato the notes take on more of a drunken stumble. The Allegro precipitato starts off like a runaway train before a rippling lyricism takes over (reminiscent of parts of the Liszt). The Smanioso (“rampaging”) movement is downright eccentric, using the extreme notes of the keyboard. The finale, Precipitosissimo, starts off manically driven, then becomes comically dainty, followed by a sort of pseudo-innocent section, then an inconclusive conclusion.

It’s a pity that this intriguingly-constructed program had to be interrupted by an intermission at this point, but I can understand the pianist’s need for a break. Mr. Adès is not a showy performer – he’s more the quietly intense type. And intensity doesn’t come easy (he perspires a good deal).

The second half opened with another rarely-programmed work, Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, D. 915, a kind of homage to the recently-deceased Beethoven. It has a questing, querying personality, with alternating gentle and assertive passages. Then with only the briefest of pauses (no applause solicited), Adès launched into his own piece. It does not quote any of the preceding works, but (as stated above) it shares many of their characteristics. “Ode to Joy” uses tremolos a lot (shades of Liszt) and has outbursts of giddiness. The rest of the piece is characterized by short phrases with quick transitions and stretches of syncopation; it is basically a set of enigmatic variations ending with a non-commital grumble.

I’m not sure if thorough knowledge of Powder Her Face is required to fully appreciate this piece. Hearing it in context of the rest of the brilliantly-constructed program certainly helps.

Finally, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Opus 126. These also were obviously chosen for certain characteristics shared with preceding works. No. 1 in G major has more “tripping” passages; No. 2 in G minor contains yet more lightening quick transitions, and so forth.

To sum up: with this program, Thomas Adès seems to be presenting portraits of his own chosen musical ancestors along with sonic genealogical evidence.

There were two brief encores, both extremely nicely played: Liszt’s Valse oubliée and Couperin’s enchanting Les Barricades mystérieuses.

This program will be repeated at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on March 16, at Carnegie Hall on March 27, and at London’s Barbican on April 27. The 1100-seat Chan Centre was not sold-out for his Vancouver appearance, which is a pity. It is an unusual and stimulating program, exceedingly well played.

Michael Johnson



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