Classical Concert Review: Thomas Adès conducts Liszt, Adès, and Tchaikovsky

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The BSO recently announced an extension to artistic partner Thomas Adès’s contract. It is lucky to have him. So are the rest of us.

Thomas Adès conducing pianist Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Adès’s Piano Concerto. Photo: Winslow Townson.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) doesn’t have a composer-in-residence. However, in artistic partner Thomas Adès they might actually have something better: a world-class composer, pianist, and conductor they’re keen to showcase in all three roles, sometimes simultaneously.

Granted, this month audiences have to wait another week to hear Adès the Keyboardist in a duo-piano recital with Kirill Gerstein. But if you were lucky enough to be at Symphony Hall on Thursday night, you got to hear Adès in prime form as composer and conductor.

The highlight of the evening – and, certainly, one of the zeniths of the current season – was the world premiere of his Piano Concerto. A three-movement piece written for Gerstein (and commissioned by the BSO), it’s as riveting, spirited, flashy, and touching a work in that genre as anyone’s composed since, maybe, Prokofiev.

No, it’s not epic. Running just around twenty minutes, this is as focused a concerto as they come. Nor is it inscrutably dense or esoteric. Yes, Adès’ harmonic language can be freely dissonant and his sense of rhythm deliriously woozy. So, in fact, are both at different points in this Concerto.

But, in most regards, his writing here suggests the 18th- and 19th-century concerto tradition – or at least its contours reworked into something bracingly du jour.

The first movement is, if not exactly in a sonata form, at least built around two clearly delineated themes: the first, a swaggering, tipsy march; the second, a lyrical melody. Another set of contrasting motives mark the delicate, songful central movement. The finale is a raucous jumble of ideas – from complex canons to banal scales – that simmer in a kind of Ives-ian stew before culminating in an exuberant coda.

In terms of mood, too, Ades’ score is refreshing. He is, without a doubt, a serious composer. But his music doesn’t necessarily take itself too earnestly: like György Ligeti’s, it’s able to cut up and let loose now and again (even if it does so in high-minded ways).

That effervescent spirit permeated the Concerto’s outer movements, with their wafting allusions to Gershwin, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and others all filtered through Adès’ singular voice. This, in turn, allowed the darkly beautiful middle one to stand out by its expressive contrast.

Throughout, Adès’ keyboard writing is sinewy and involved, full of pummeling octaves, thick rhythmic layerings, and a fearsome cadenza.

In other words, it’s tailor-made for Gerstein, a pianist whose charisma knows no bounds and whose introduction of the piece on Thursday left nothing to be desired. Indeed, the clarity of Gerstein’s playing – textures and rhythms were spot-on – was breathtaking, as was his ability to draw out the expressive essence of the riveting slow movement. Surely his interpretation will deepen with time, but it’s already starting from a place of total stylistic command and expressive sympathy.

The BSO’s account of its part played up the music’s extremes of mood, character, and color. Muted brasses and glinting percussion in the first movement, and rich woodwind choruses in the second, stood out for their excellence.

In sum, then, this is one captivating Piano Concerto: stirring, memorable, hitting (no pun intended) all the right notes. May it be played far and wide for a long time to come.

Framing the Concerto came a pair of 19th-century scores.

Adès led off the night with a rollicking, Technicolor performance of the Mephisto Waltz no. 1 that played up the novel colors and gestures of Franz Liszt’s 1861 realization of Nikolaus Lenau’s poem.

Afterwards came a lean, mean reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4. This was the sort of interpretation you might have expected from Pierre Boulez: astounding textural clarity (balances between the first movement’s second theme and its accompaniment, for instance, were exquisite), rhythmic vitality, nary not a hint of sentiment or bombast in sight.

At the same time, Adès always placed the singing line front-and-center, molding the second movement’s melodic phrases with care and highlighting the little woodwind fillips over its final part. The third movement, strongly shaped, didn’t lack for playfulness though it was, on the whole, more martial and menacing than not. And the finale, taken at a blistering clip, brought the Symphony to a rousing conclusion, the orchestra’s slashing responses to the last iterations of the “Fate motive” as emphatic as I’ve ever heard them.

Any other concert and this lithe, propulsive Tchaikovsky would have been the story of the night. As it was, Adès’ Concerto carried the day. The BSO, who recently announced an extension to its artistic partner’s contract (through the 2020-21 season), is lucky to have him. So are the rest of us.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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