The week in classical: Thomas Adès; LPO/Jurowski; LSO/Rattle – review

Wigmore Hall; Royal Festival Hall; Barbican, London
Thomas Adès communes with Janáček, Jurowski and the LPO do Stravinsky proud, and the LSO shows its jazzy side

What makes one composer pour countless hours of his own creative energies into the music of another? Last week Thomas Adès tweeted that the “greatest thrill” in his life was to receive the Leoš Janáček prize in Brno, the Czech composer’s home city. One of the world’s most admired living composers, Adès has probably had quite a few thrills in life already, but there’s no question he meant his remark. This month, as pianist, he has given solo Janáček recitals throughout Europe, ahead of a recording. Why do this unless fired by an irresistible impulse.

Janáček’s main works for piano – the output is not large – are On an Overgrown Path, a cycle of impressionistic, odd, introspective miniatures; In the Mist and Piano Sonata No 1.X.1905, “From the Street”. At a long-sold-out Wigmore Hall, Adès included less familiar pieces: an In Memoriam, a nativity carol and others. It felt less like a piano recital than an eavesdropping on two composers in dialogue. Adès surely responds to a kindred independence in Janáček, who forges past and present, folk song and dissonance, in an entity now quirky, now hesitant, blazing, enigmatic and above all solitary.

Lullaby-like melodies, hands wide apart, mooning along as if improvised, shatter into itchy torment, hands folding over each other before resuming calm, as if nothing has happened. Episodes are spliced, rather than nurtured harmonically. They arrive and leave without warning, without consolation. A private pianist – this is not the land of smiles; Adès resists adulation, hurrying on and off stage – he plays with a sense of wonder, as if no one else were listening. It makes you pin your ears back all the harder.

In the years in which On an Overgrown Path, was compiled (eventually published in 1911, its history is not straightforward), Janáček’s ever turbulent life was burdened with a specific grief: the illness and death of his daughter. The lyrical titles – Our Evenings; Words Fail!; In Tears – were added to Overgrown Path after the music. In the elegiac The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!, Adès hammered out the quick broken chords at the start, raw and spangly like a cimbalom. The rest was fierce and tender. As encores he played two late fragments, so short and strange you could quite believe he had written them himself.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s year-long Stravinsky series, Changing Faces, masterminded by Vladimir Jurowski, ended with solemnity and, spilling into the 60s, revolt. The Swingles, reminding us how innovative this a cappella vocal group still is, whooped and whispered deliciously in Berio’s Sinfonia (1968), a work as abundant and of its time as Stravinsky is spare and timeless. In his last orchestral work, Variations (Aldous Huxley in memoriam) (1963-4), the desiccated, unworldly variation for 12 violins nearly defies words. Luckily, Stravinsky provided us with a description, likening it to “a sprinkling of very fine glass”. The LPO, here and elsewhere, served him superbly.

Vladimir Jurowski.
Stravinsky champion Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Drew Kelly

Threni (1958), settings in Latin from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, was a centrepiece. This lateish choral work has a reputation for being tough, perhaps because its under-rehearsed early performances in Venice and Paris were so badly received. Stravinsky needed the London Philharmonic Choir, who negotiated its angles and perils easily. The music is 12-tone, but in Stravinksy’s hands a potentially forbidding technique sounds rich and fluid. Take the opening bars alone: a violent lurch of opposing leaps – simultaneously downward (in the violins) and upward (in violas and cellos) – sound like anguished human sobs. Elizabeth Atherton, soprano, Sam Furness, tenor, and Joshua Bloom, bass, led the soloists. Bloom convincingly replaced Maxim Mikhailov, the great Russian bass who died last month. The concert was in his memory.

As a parting shot, Jurowski and the orchestra proffered Stravinsky in rare comic mood: the Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant (1942, orch. 1944), originally for a Balanchine ballet for 50 humans and 50 elephants. Stravinsky was living in America by then, breathing in the accents of jazz. At a Half Six Fix concert – rush-hour concerts lasting an hour – members of the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, stylishly played the Ebony Concerto (1945), commissioned by bandleader and clarinettist Woody Herman. The pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque joined the players for Nazareno, a slightly inflated Latin American extravaganza by Osvaldo Golijov (b1960). The real fun came with another piece for Woody Herman, Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949): written-out jazz that yet sounds spontaneous. “And it has some of the best striptease music ever written,” pointed out Rattle knowledgeably. Even so, we kept our clothes on because it was an overcoat sort of night.

Katia and Marielle Labèque, the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle at the Barbican last week.
Katia and Marielle Labèque, percussionists Raphaël Séguinier and Gonzalo Grau, members of the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle at the Barbican last week. Photograph: Mark Allan

Star ratings (out of five)
Thomas Adès


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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