Classical CD Reviews: Thomas Adès’ Piano Works, “Ecstatic Science,” and Michael Gordon’s “Anonymous Man”

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Thomas Adès is a formidable pianist and his output for his native instrument is fundamentally gripping; yMusic’s new album is a spectacularly-played and -recorded disc; Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man is undeniably hypnotic but gets stuck in a loop that goes on for a mite too long.

Thomas Adès is among the most striking orchestral composers of his generation. He’s also a formidable pianist and his output for his native instrument is fundamentally gripping, as keyboardist Han Chen’s new survey of Adès piano works demonstrates.

The offerings here span nearly three decades, from 1992’s Still Sorrowing to 2015’s Blanca Variations.

Chen’s performances are locked-in and potent. Still Sorrowing’s delicate, atmospheric figurations are beautifully controlled. The same years’ Darknesse Visible is likewise vividly etched, Chen’s execution of his part’s involved voicings and dynamics done with terrific sensitivity and élan.

His approach to 1996’s Traced Overhead demonstrates a robust command of Adès’ larger style. Its first movement, if not quite as dry as can be, is certainly ominous enough. The second, “Aetheria,” is articulated with athletic brilliance, while the concluding “Chori” shimmers.

In the Three Mazurkas, Chen draws out the dolorous qualities of the opening movement. The second is hazily delirious, with a stout articulation of the left-hand line in its middle section. Its finale proves sultry and woozy, its concluding bars luminous.

Similar qualities also mark the Blanca Variations – whose thematic materials never get lost (despite Adès’ sometimes very-involved manipulations and embellishments of them) – and the staggering Concert Paraphrase on ‘Powder Her Face,’ Adès’ insanely Lisztian adaptation of themes from his ribald 1995 opera. True, Chen’s performance of the latter takes a little while to settle into the spirit of things but, once it does, everything clicks. The textural and rhythmic clarity of his playing is extraordinary, while the frolicsome shape with which he imbues the second movement and spunky finale carries all before it. Suffice it to say, Chen’s reading is a doozy.

The disc is filled out with a lush, dreamy account of the “Souvenir” from Adès’ score to the 2018 film Colette. Like everything else here, it’s gorgeously done – and also demonstrates just what a fine melodist Adès can be.

What to say about yMusic’s new album, Ecstatic Science?

First, that it’s a spectacularly-played and -recorded disc. Truly, it’s difficult to come up with superlatives to do justice to this ensemble: trumpeter C.J. Cameriere, flautist Alex Sopp, clarinetist Hideaki Amor, violinist Rob Moose, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Gabriel Cabezas are brilliant soloists, by any measure. But, as a collective, they demonstrate an understanding of ensemble and ear for texture that’s simply breathtaking: absolutely nothing gets lost in the mix.

They’re aided in their efforts by New Amsterdam’s crackerjack engineers, who ensure that balances across Ecstatic Science’s five pieces are shaped with an understanding of the musical line that is both expressively direct and acoustically right.

Accordingly, the indicative figures in Missy Mazzoli’s title track (slow string glissandos and peppy woodwind figures, principle among them) emerge and accumulate with a glowing sense of purpose – not to mention ingratiating character – that, in lesser hands, would surely be lost.

Paul Wiancko’s Thous&ths isn’t too far removed from the constantly fluctuating expressive world of Ecstatic Science: its ménage of lush solo lines and sequence of diverging musical ideas (some playful, some menacing, some introspective), covers much ground, even if the score’s larger message remains enigmatic. Even so, Thous&ths sense of whimsy (the abrupt melodic fragments and allusions to dance forms around its middle section, especially) and its Shostakovich-ian appropriation of irony keeps it in the mind long after its seven-plus minutes subside.

So do the pair of pieces by Gabriella Smith, Tessellations and Maré. Both share a similar formal structure, with main, central sections materializing from (and dissipating into) elemental, gestural lines: rhythmic tattoos in the former, microtonal sonorities in the latter. In Maré, the bent pitches and natural harmonics of the outer parts never completely recede from the foreground – and, accordingly, lend the piece’s raucous climax a slightly unnerving touch.

Rounding things out is Caroline Shaw’s pulsing, typically sunny Draft of a High Rise. Its three movements offer a series of contrasts. In the first, snappy rhythmic figures and longer-breathed lines alternate. The second poses a series of subtle responses to a recurring theme; the disintegration of Shaw’s materials at the end is striking. And the finale presents a sequence of metamorphoses of previously-heard themes over a developing array of measured pulses.

In sum, then, Ecstatic Science is a terrific, ingratiating showcase of a kind of contemporary music that, on the one hand, is thoughtfully constructed and designed to please, but, on the other, unafraid to provoke. Don’t miss it.

There’s something quite touching about Michael Gordon’s new album, Anonymous Man. On the one hand, it’s a tribute to a specific place – Desbrosses Street in lower Manhattan, where the composer’s lived since the ‘80s – and very much a reminiscence of the last forty years. Musically, too, its Minimalistic gestures recall the recent past.

At the same time, Gordon’s sense of texture and musical space often echoes Medieval and Renaissance gestures. Indeed, Anonymous Man is striking for its sometimes-incongruous, but largely-nostalgic, narrative approach.

Written for (and performed here by) Donald McNally’s crackerjack vocal ensemble The Crossing, Anonymous Man is, in some ways, a hard piece with which to argue.

Certainly, McNally leads his forces in a bracing, clean, emotionally-focused performance. The Crossing’s ensemble singing is exemplary throughout: just listen to the harmonic consistency and pristine diction in “I Moved” or the tonal clarity of the densely-scored “It’s Julie Passing Through Town” for two demonstrations of the group’s supreme technical chops. Just as striking is their secure execution of the queasy portamenti in “On That Terrible Beautiful Morning.”

At the same time, it’s an open question if this fine performance compensates for the limits of Gordon’s style, particularly his heavy reliance on canonic textures.

The fact is, once you’ve gotten through the first three of Anonymous Man’s nine movements, you pretty much know what to expect over the last six. Its relative harmonic directness is commendable and, taken in doses, Gordon’s writing is undeniably hypnotic. But there’s also the sense that the larger Anonymous Man simply gets stuck in a loop that goes on for a mite too long.

Maybe that’s less of an issue in a live-performance setting but, on disc, that’s a shadow overhanging the larger score.

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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