Adès, Bartók and Barry

Zoltán Kocsis, piano; Barbara Hannigan, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Adès

Barbican Hall, 8 June 2010 4 stars

Thomas Ades

The convivial reception that greeted the London Symphony Orchestra's programme of almost entirely new works suggests that contemporary art music occupies a more robust position in British culture than its detractors would have one believe.

It seems curious, then, that it was necessary to include Bartók's First Piano Concerto in the evening's performance, which featured three works by Thomas Adès, as well as the UK première of Gerald Barry's La Plus Forte. Indeed, the concerto, often intended as the biggest draw of the evening was, in reality, the weakest link in an otherwise impressive concert. The positioning of the percussion section at the front of the stage alongside the piano highlights the percussive nature of the instrument, which is exploited by Bartók in this work. The orchestra, particularly the quasi-soloist percussionists gave a wonderfully concise rendition of work, injecting colour into the terse and rhythmic phrases that was wanting in the soloist. Although the Hungarian pianist, Zoltán Kocsis has recorded an acclaimed complete series of Bartók's piano music, his performance felt rather perfunctory, and lacked a sense of engagement with the orchestra, or connection with the audience.

The other soloist of the evening, however, the soprano Barbara Hannigan clearly stole the show in the UK première of Gerald Barry's La Plus Forte. Written for Barbara Hannigan after her performance in Barry's 2005 ENO commission The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this one-act opera is a French translation of the Strindberg short play ‘The Stronger'. Its brief twenty-minute duration belies the intensity of the dark and devastating psychodrama that unfolds in a chance meeting of Madame X and Mademoiselle Y on Christmas Eve. Actresses that had competed for the same role, Madame X, the only spoken role of the work, comes to the realisation Mme Y may also have had an affair with her husband.

From the opening a cappella phrases, Hannigan inhabited the character of Madame X with breathtaking passion, reaching out and gripping the audience, taking them with her on an agitated emotional journey, that threatens to, but doesn't quite become unbalanced. Barry's considered scoring cleverly intensifies the drama; often the voice is alone, or the orchestra is used as a chamber ensemble, subtly needling and disquieting the character. Adding to the awkwardness of the scene, the vocal lines soared and plummeted with a range to rival that of the Queen of the Night's ‘Der Hölle Rache' and were stunningly executed by Hannigan. Having conducted the première of the work at Festival Présences in 2007, Adès seemed as at home here as in his own works, as and their forthcoming work together seems to indicate, there is a developing relationship between him and Barry – Adès will conduct Barry's forthcoming work Feldman's Sixpenny Editions with London Sinfonietta in March 2011, as well as a new chamber opera, The Importance of Being Earnest, with the LA Philharmonic the following month.

These engagements are typical of the busy schedule of Adès, who, not yet 40, has already a prolific compositional output and continues to conduct and perform as a pianist. Both ...but all shall be well and These premises are alarmed were written whilst Adès was still in his twenties; as was the opera Powder Her Face, although the dance suite performed here dates from 2007. As a conductor, Adès has a very physical presence, when conducting his own works his choreography seemed to mimic and foreshadow the sounds he had written for the orchestra, but the LSO responded with a typically rich and colourful performance. ...but all shall be well, a line from TS Eliot's Four Quartets, is an early work of Adès' that already demonstrates his flair for instrumentation and timbral effect, exploited too in These premises are alarmed. Written in 1996 for the opening of the Bridgewater Hall, the short capricious work mimics the sound of alarms whilst exploring seemingly every dynamic, every texture, and every skill of which the orchestra are capable.

Although Adès' first opera Powder Her Face, commissioned by Almeida Opera in 1995, created somewhat of a scandal when it first emerged, it is already available on DVD, CD, has been televised on Channel 4 and the 2008 Royal Opera House production was revived only last month. This orchestral suite, created by Adès in 2007, launches straight into the decadent lifestyle of the infamous Duchess, a distorted Carmenesque riff underpinning a lusty cabaret evocative of Kurt Weill. Neatly arranged, Adès tumbles through the frenzy of drugs, sex and debauchery with brazen ecstasy. Orchestra, like audience, visibly revelled in it.

By Úna-Frances Clarke

Photo of Ades: Nigel Luckhurst

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