Those with the good fortune to attend one of this week’s BSO triplicate concerts can expect to enjoy the productive collaboration between conductor-composer-pianist Thomas Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein. Further, a Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert (Sunday, November 19th) will feature these long-time friends in a two-piano work by Ligeti and will also include the American premiere of Növények by Adès.
The first of these three concerts displaying Adès’s intense, athletic leading of a varied four-work program, each mind-bending for its time, opened with Liszt’s Les Préludes Symphonic Poem No. 3, after the French poet Lamartine, and then Gerstein’s mesmerizing performance of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, and post-intermission, Stravinsky’s Orpheus, Ballet in three scenes and, finally, Adès’s Tevot for large orchestra.
The well-known 1854 Liszt, with its pastoral beginning initiated with dawn-like phrasing, yet moments of storm, struggle and triumph, possibly the world’s first work labeled a “symphonic poem,” features full orchestra, including harp and percussion. Liszt kept his precise inspiration mysterious, despite his emotive description. In this rendition Adès virtually became the music, his conducting intensely drawing full emotion from the orchestra.
The Liszt readied the audience for the celebratory centennial of György Ligeti, the unique and widely acclaimed Hungarian composer, who wrote challenging, dazzling, wise and witty works that reflected not only his heritage but his uncanny humor and inventiveness. Luckily for us, he survived both World War II and later upheaval in Hungary. Gerstein with Adès and the orchestra treated the capacity audience to an articulate, approachable and collaborative performance of Ligeti’s gem of a piano concerto, which includes a spell-binding array of percussion instruments –and 1-2 percussionists playing at intervals, glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, flexatone, suspended cymbals, siren whistle, police whistle, lotus flute, harmonica in C, guiro, castanets, whip, wood blocks, temple blocks, tambourine, bongos, tom-toms, snare drum, base drum. The rest of the orchestra seemed visually pruned, seated apart, as on a post-apocalyptic latter-day stage set.
The long-in-gestation five-movement work contains plenty of surprises, musical ambush and solace. Gerstein is more than up to the precision, timing and verve required for this concerto in which the pianist dominates the initial Vivace molto ritmico e preciso with pulsating, forceful drive, with piccolo and percussion providing a vibrant jungle-like ambience, with tuttis at times. The contrasting Lento e deserto second movement provides polymetrics to good effect and sounds reminiscent of mourning cries. Its initial pianissimo seems reminiscent of Ligeti’s first étude, Désordre later interrupted by startling, bleak winds. Many themes within this spellbinding concerto conjure Ligeti’s earlier work, especially true for the third Vivace cantabile movement, which carries the lamentation in a falling motif from the prior movement forward only to become rapid and mood changing. The fourth movement, Allegro risoluto, molto ritmico provides sound fragments, according to the composer, in part inspired by fractal images. The final movement, Presto Luminoso, fluido, constante, sempre molto ritmico inspired with a trio of time signatures, contains surprising flashbacks to the initial movement and dissonant mosaics from earlier movements. Despite the concerto’s quiet ending, Gerstein’s rendition conferred excitement, if not euphoria. ,
Stravinsky completed Orpheus in 1947, one of his many compositions based on Greek myths, this one first performed by the Ballet Society (currently called the New York City Ballet) in 1948, along with unique costumes and scenery by Isamu Noguchi and Maria Tallchief as Eurydice and Nicholas Magallanes as Orpheus. Harpist Jessica Zhou’s exquisitely focused playing framed the ensemble of strings, woodwinds and brass, plus timpani. In the first scene Orpheus laments Eurydice’s death, Dance of the Furies follows and precedes Orpheus’s Apotheosis. Even without the dancers, this version enchanted.
Adès’s Tevot (2007) for large orchestra, Opus 24 by Adès, co-commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and the Carnegie Hall Corporation, is a stunner, and for starters, has a triple entendre title—bars of music, and more specifically, vessels, particularly two biblical vessels—Noah’s Ark and the cradle that carried the baby, Moses, on the Nile. Surprisingly nimble and eventful, it starts in heavenly yet ominous manner, with high tunes carried by the strings; moan-like waves from lower pitched instruments follow, then build in intensity. One hears 12-tone riffs bursting out, then suddenly going quiet and calm―lyrical after the storm. The soothing portion, which lasts for around half of the work nevertheless contains surprises. At moments, layered harmonies, striking combinations of instruments such as lone strings and winds in varied combinations. I felt as if I were on Noah’s ark gone modern, and I was not quite ready to get off.