Thomas Adès, the Boston Symphony’s first-ever Artistic Partner, has arrived: he leaves his indelible marks around town, his derring-do as pianist, conductor, composer, and lecturer much chronicled in these pages. At the BSO’s helm between Hallowe’en and our phantasmagorical national election, the 45-year-old Londoner wielded a mailed fist in a velvet glove through riveting readings of early Britten, late Sibelius, and his own take-no-prisoners mummers’ play, Totentanz.
Adès led the BSO with baritone Mark Stone and mezzo soprano Christianne Stotijn, cast as Death and his 15 victims, in texts that animate a medieval frieze from Lübeck’s Marienkirche. With brisk vigor, grace and economy of gesture, Adès foists the stark and timeless lesson upon our rude age: Death leads us, one and all, in our final boogaloo. Stone, as Preacher, navigates spiky, eldritch variations on the age-old Dies Irae with shrill piccolos and clubfooted drums in 2/6, then dons the clacking skeleton outfit—wily, bold, unctuous in turn—in abrupt pas de deux with Stotijn’s clerics and laymen, high to low, curt with pope and emperor but kindly to parish clerk and peasant. Vocal exchanges often weave into duos, as gleefully dense textures reign, peak, threaten to drown Death and victim alike, and gradually subside. The Reaper’s final seductions—wooing a coy maiden and calming a hapless baby—nod frankly to courtly sarabande and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, as all winds down in cosmic entropy.
Adès’ 18-minute companion pieces showed a keen ear for the precocious and neglected. Benjamin Britten, an avowed and abiding influence, wrote Sinfonia da Requiem in 1939, between his mother’s death and Hitler’s rise. At 27, Britten’s astonishing command of orchestral drama (vying tonal centers), vivid colors, huge unisons, and stark timbres—and his lingering sense of loss and outrage over war’s human toll – all presage his monumental War Requiem. Oily alto saxophone lines insinuate jazz-age flair and decadence. Between the serpentine Lacrymosa and searching Requiem, a prestissimo, macabre Dies Irae rears up, strings slashing, brass in protest, skeletal xylophones and muted brass shades dug up and airborne in a ghoulish Last Judgment.
In Tapiola, his final, dreamiest tone-poem, Sibelius leads us once again into alpine forests, the realm of Tapio, god of Nature. We fall under the mystical thrall of woodland sprites and darkling trolls, peer beneath ferns and piny carpets at scurrying critters great and small, feel fierce Arctic winds through shrieking horns and strings’ weird harmonics. Sinuous countermelodies and seductive cross-rhythms hint at Ravel, Holst. Dissonances mount and chaos threatens, but all ends well: Tapio, the Green Man of lichen beard, benignly sanctions the humming, harmonious activity. We become enchanted, primeval, whole again. Sibelius lived another thirty years in epic silence.
All three pieces open with bold timpani and brass, and end in vastly differing quietudes: the Britten in wary acceptance, the Sibelius in Nature’s consonance, the Adès as Death’s turgid two-step grinds all—indignant pontiff to addled babe—into the primordial ooze.
 The BSO had performed the Britten only twice since its 1942 premiere, Tapiola only twice since the 1930s—no Finlandia, this—both under the championing baton of Serge Koussevitsky.
 Oh, that tuba, bass drum, contrabassoon, and contraforte!