IN: Reviews

Adès and Gerstein Radiate Energy


Thomas Adès (Hilary Scott photo)

I have written extensively (probably too much, including the BSO program notes) about Berg’s Opus 6, and if you don’t believe that, check my website, or look back at some of my earlier BMInt output HERE. I know this score quite well, and indeed, at one time I was contracted to edit Opus 6 for the Complete Works in Vienna, which for various reasons fell through. Last night’s traversal achieved a quite acceptable level. But it must be nearly impossible to discern a good performance of the Three Pieces because of the intractable problems of adjusting instrumental balances, because what’s in the score makes clear sense only when it can be actually heard. This interpretation sounded like a good one. Thomas Adès conducted with exaggerated choreography and continuous gestures that were over-the-top much of the time, but in Berg’s Three Pieces, which seem to be composed with the same degree of extreme gesture and emotion, they were surely necessary. The strings, rich in tone and expression, carried well most of the time; the brass often overbalanced, but one can blame Berg for some of that.   But there was some wonderful warmth at m. 10 of the Präludium — and we actually experienced the alto trombone called for in the original score but revised out of the later version. The motivic cadencing sonority at m. 42 gave special pleasure. Reigen was wonderfully and crazily noisy — there’s hardly better words for it. The Marsch felt appropriately neurotic, and Adès exerted better control over the constantly-shifting tempi than most podium leaders. Does anyone recognize that the clarinet motive of m. 2 in the Marsch — just five notes with a trill — return precisely at mm. 170-171 just before the end, with two notes in the solo contrabass handed off to two more in timpani and bassoons, finishing with one note in solo cello with triangle? Hard to hear, harder still to identify, but it came through nicely last night. (The massive wooden hammer produced a huge wallop — better than the mere croquet mallet from the last performance.)

Following the Berg, the orchestra trimmed down some for Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, with Kirill Gerstein, Adès’s long-standing collaborator, as soloist. This well-known work might have been slighted some in rehearsal; there were a few minor problems of coordination and attack; yet overall we enjoyed some especially fine playing in the orchestra (the contrabassoon took a well-deserved bow). One remembers that Ravel wrote his G major two-handed Concerto more or less simultaneously with this one, and there’s an old, surely apocryphal joke — “How are you coming with your concertos, Maurice?” “Fine — I’ve written everything but the themes!” The two concerti do, in fact, seem to have much of the same sound-feeling in common. Gerstein’s gently expressivity with the second theme (Più lento, before no. 9) was particularly welcoming. His glancing from one end of the keyboard to the other, especially when he would look to the right and play to the left, and then back again, proved entertaining. Adès’s attentiveness showed an acceptable level of gestural restraint (but he does need to back off from that teacup finger).

Kirill Gerstein (Hilary Scott photo)

After the intermission, Gerstein returned to play Thomas Adès’s own BSO-commissioned, three-movement Piano Concerto which the orchestra had premiered three years ago. It is a likable, rough-hewn tonal work—witty without being funny, despite what seemed like well-filtered influences from Gershwin (down to “I got rhythm”) and Ravel (no wonder!). It contained crisply-accented parallel triads like those in the Left-hand Concerto, and some odd cantabile with solo tuba, and memorably screechy unison high woodwinds that stood out; at the same time, this concerto shows typical grand-romantic piano-concerto conventions, with plenty of triadic right-hand chords framed by octaves, offset by high-register tinkling. The second movement included some elegant right-hand high cantilena with twitches and fidgets, that gradually crawled all the way to the bottom; impressively creepy heavy string chords in steady motion marked the orchestral side. The busy, even furious finale often suggested a piano (with melodic groups of 5) fighting for control of the beat, as the orchestra buoyed it in bars of 6. The chromatic harmonic sequences here reminded me of some of Berg’s in Act II of Lulu, subtle but perceptible in the background. This interesting concerto deserves more hearings, and provides a fine augury for Adès’s next example in the genre.

Ravel’s La valse is a masterpiece with difficult problems of balance in scoring; many performances have been orchestrally chaotic, with melodic lines obscured. Last night melodic clarity ruled, and nearly everything worked well. Thomas Adès controlled the tempi, and especially the rubato moments, with complete confidence. He took seriously Ravel’s markings to remove the mutes on the strings at No. 13 “one by one” as marked in the score. Sometimes the brass overwhelmed. The bass drum at No. 28 is marked ff, not ffff; we need to hear the timpani underneath. (The BSO’s large bass drum is a fine instrument, though; we can feel it.) The final pages of the score achieved frenzy to the point of scariness, but we heard all the notes, and that’s as it should be.

Did the players get enough rehearsal time for all the music on this long program of difficult works? They probably could have used more on the Berg, to allow players and audience a better understanding of the total sound. But as a whole, the concert came across with well-developed sonic splendor and ample energy, and it deserved plenty of warm praise.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. What a very interesting and informative review. On Friday, the Berg was absolutely thrilling — especially for those of us who had not heard it performed live before. The program itself worked in a sort of self-enhancing way, as Berg’s sense of unstoppable catastrophe gave a poignant context for Ravel’s concerto for WWI invalid Paul Wittgenstein. I also loved that Ades wore his debt to Ravel on his sleeve (so to speak). Lots of very delighted young musicians in the audience!

    Comment by Ashley — January 31, 2022 at 7:24 am

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