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Thomas Adès at the Proms [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]
19 Jul 2013

Prom 8: Adès’ Totentanz

This remarkably cohesive programme of works by Britten, Lutoslawski and Adès was underpinned by a dark intensity; tragic realism interwoven with transient intimations of hope.

Prom 8: Adès’ Totentanz

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Thomas Adès at the Proms [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]


A tightly controlled and startlingly vehement rendition of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem opened the Prom, Adès pacing and crafting the three movements in a reading of the score which made a more than usually convincing case for the work. With clarity and precision, the conductor revealed extremes of colour, texture and weight. An intimate but disconsolate ‘Lachrymose’, was followed by a cynical, fleet-footed ‘Dies Irae’, the flute flutter-tonguing pounded by the mocking onslaught of the percussion. The conclusion of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ was beautifully affecting, as Adès found both serenity and sorrow in the return of the fragmented plainchant with which the work begins.

A similar disturbing combination of anguish and restraint characterised Paul Watkin’s magnificent performance of Lutoslawki’s Cello Concerto. From the quiet, monotonous pulses of the long cello solo which commences the work, Watkins kept the undoubtedly powerful emotional resonances of the work on a tight rein, only occasionally allowing the latent ‘suffering’ expressed in Lutoslawski’s intangible musical narrative to be released. Harmonics and glissandi were delicately transparent; strident pizzicato passages were delivered with directness and authority. Adès too focused more on the score’s detailed colourings than on its dynamic heaviness, allowing the cello to be an equal partner with the full orchestral forces, never struggle to articulate. The third movement cantilena was exquisitely lyrical but offered only a temporary repose before the furious rhythmic energy of the final movement welled up, driving the work to its wild conclusion.

In the second half of the programme, Adès conducted the world premiere of his own Totentanz, commissioned by Robin Boyle in memory of Lutoslawski and his wife, Danuta.

Adès’ musical portrait of a ‘Dance of Death’ draws its inspiration from a visual source: a 30-metre-long painted hanging, made in 1463 for the church of St Mary in the German Baltic city of Lübeck, which depicts Death linking hands with a cross-section of individuals, addressing each with his message of unavoidable doom.

In Totentanz, Death, a baritone (Simon Keenlyside) invites in turn a succession of human representatives - including Pope, Emperor, Cardinal, King, Monk, Usurer, Merchant and Parish Clerk - to join his inescapable and deadly dervish, delighting that, ‘When I come, great and small,/ no grieving helps you’. A soprano (Christianne Stotijn) adopts the diverse mortal roles, voicing their resignedly acquiescent replies as they cast off their worldly garb and accept their earth-bound fate. But Death is indifferent to their mortal weakness, ignoring their pitiful laments and turning disdainfully to the next recipient of his solicitation. In this way, Adès avoids a static interplay of invitation and response, creating a tense dialogue and a whirling, accumulating momentum which sucks us into a vortex of unstoppable energy.

At the start, the Preacher invites rich and poor, young and old, to ‘come to see the play’, and the work does have an inherently theatrical quality. Adès asks a great deal of his ‘players’, and the two vocal soloists rose to the challenges negotiating, singly and in duet, the angular, wide-ranging melodies with supreme assurance (although they were amplified - one wonders whether they could have risen above the panoply of percussive pounding without it, or conveyed the text so crisply).

Stotijn found a remarkable range of colours and moods to convey the various human ‘voices’, complemented by an ever-changing orchestral landscape - for example, lyrical gesturing from the violins accompanies the Pope’s submission, while the Cardinal’s mellifluous pleading is complemented by the high timbre of the flute juxtaposed with a grumbling bass. And, the composer avoids repetitiveness by varying Death’s proposition each time. Thus, Death’s proposals - sung with seductive charm by Keenleyside, mingled with imperious contempt - ‘duet’ with a range of instruments and groupings; trembling double bass as he addresses the Emperor, a repetitive pattern played by the celli when his words are directed at the King, a dialogue with trombones as the Monk is called to the dance.

Adès’ timbral invention, his ability to find new, astonishing orchestral colours, should not surprise. One thinks of the piano’s ethereal trembling in Darknesse Visible, or the startling bass oboe melody in Asyla, the latter also making use of cowbells and quarter-tone-flat piano. Here he calls upon an eight-strong percussion team to paint a kaleidoscopic canvas.

From the opening screeches of the piccolo, the astringent harmony, asymmetrical rhythms and percussive outbursts establish the grim reality which inevitably erodes and destroys human aspiration. As the dance proceeds across an increasingly wide harmonic and timbral expanse, an unstoppable accretion of dissonance builds up - almost painfully - culminating in an orchestral apocalypse, like a sonic black hole of terrifying magnificence and appalling horror.

Then, when our capacity for aural assault is totally depleted, the catastrophic silence is gently broken by more tender strains; as Death turns to the lower echelons of the social hierarchy, a gentler, more sentimental mood ensues. The Parish Clerk’s pianissimo melody is hauntingly beautiful and sorrowful. Following the Handworker, Peasant and Maiden, the Child is Death’s last ‘victim’, but now the invitation is more comforting, ‘Til the last day, sleep now: sleep on, consoled’. With the Child’s poignant, unsettling response, ‘O Death, how can I understand?/ I cannot walk, yet I must dance!’, the score hints at a cleansing, major tonality, the harmony and sound-world intimating a quasi-Mahlerian transfiguration. Ultimately the music slips into darkness, the dark, sunken tones of timpani and tuba recalling the spirit of the conclusion of the ‘requiem’ which opened the concert and, to this listener at least, the call of the sea which invites Peter Grimes and Aschenbach to their respective deaths.

In a NYT article, Richard Taruskin praised Adès’ ‘precocious technical sophistication and [an] omnivorous range of references’. In Totentatz these qualities are startlingly evident: the soundscape blends the new and the familiar in a score which first challenges the listener with its visceral impact - inflicting a savage aural and emotional battering - and then salves with bitter-sweet harmonic succour. Despite its emotional directness, the work retains an intriguing, enticing ambiguity.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available for a further five days on BBC Radio 3 online at ; it will be broadcast on BBC 4 on 28th July.

Production and cast information:

Britten, Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20; Lutoslawski, Cello Concerto; Adès, Totentanz; Paul Watkins, cello; Christianne Dtotijn, mezzo-soprano; Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Thomas Adès, conductor; BBC Symphony Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, Wednesday, 17th July 2013.

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