England's Mozart or Liszt?

"England's Mozart" one critic dubbed the young Thomas Adès a few years ago. I very much hoped this was true, as our visitors' book has an entry for 9-10 September 1978 in firm, legible, scarily grown-up handwriting, the name and address of the six-year-old Thomas, along with those of his mother and younger brother. Now 39, Adès seems at the height of his powers as a composer, with two operas, a piano concerto, a violin concerto and plenty of other orchestral works to his credit. He is also renowned (and in demand) as a conductor. But until April 27
th in a piano recital at the Barbican, I had not heard him perform. Now I'd be more inclined to say he is "England's Liszt," as he is that (currently) rare thing a composer who is a virtuoso pianist.


Joan Rodgers as Marg of Arg in "Powder Her Face"

         From Mozart on the composer/virtuoso combination was not uncommon, and one can think of plenty of 19th century musicians who qualify from Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov to Saint-Saens. In the 20th century I can think of far fewer - Britten and Bernstein, Stravinsky and Messiaen. Perhaps I am being obtuse, or don't know how to get the best out of Google, but I can think of few contemporary composers who can really dazzle their audience by their playing. Am I wrong?

I've certainly been engaged by Philip Glass and his Ensemble, but you wouldn't go to Carnegie Hall to hear him perform  solo Janácek's  Along an Overgrown Path - Book 2, Liszt's homage to Wagner Isolde's Liebestod or Prokofiev's Sarcasms, the first half of the programme Adès played at Carnegie Hall and repeated at the Barbican. OK, the Liebestod was showing off - but isn't that what a virtuoso does? Adès played the entire recital from memory, as well, and here what impressed me most was the Prokofiev. Besides that he played one passage with his left hand made into a fist, and his right index finger so powerful that it seemed propelled by a small explosive charge, how does anyone manage to learn the score of this piece? How does the human brain even decipher these great ropes of hemidemisemiquavers (mine certainly can't), let alone memorise great coils of them?

         If in the first half, Adès demonstrated convincingly that the piano is a percussive instrument, in the second half there were concessions to Romanticism, and a display of deep feeling as well of technique. For me the weakest link was Schubert's Allegretto in C minor, for all that it is a beautiful piece, beautifully played. It didn't have the solidity or mass of the performer's own, wonderfully wrought Concert Paraphrase on "Powder Her Face" or the puzzling dance-and-hymn juiciness of the Beethoven Bagatelles, Op. 126. Two encores were a Liszt Mazurka and his own Mazurka no. 3. The audience would have kept him a great deal longer, but the physical strain of the programme was far too great to ask for more.

         I saw Tom again the next night, two rows down from me in the audience for Powder Her Face, which was being revived at the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio in a brilliant production by Carlos Wagner. The director had solved some of the problems encountered in the original 1995 staging: Adès had simply written too much music for the action, and some of the musical interludes resulted in the singers standing around with not enough to do. No one would want to sacrifice a note of the score written by the (then) 24-year-old, and Wagner has invented some terrific stage business, in which what the singers do is actually either funny or touching. The opera deals with "Marg of Arg," the notorious Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose sex life and preferences became a public scandal in her hilarious 1955 divorce from the duke, who offered in evidence against her a photograph of his duchess fellating "the headless man," (the Polaroid snapshot was focused on the more relevant parts of the person the world later learned was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). It's all good dirty fun, and Joan Rodgers's performance as the duchess was spectacular - indeed the entire cast, and the orchestra, conducted by Timothy Redmond, were superlative, as were the imaginative sets by Conor Murphy. The action is played out on a long set of tapering to the top steps, with the duchess's hotel bedroom represented by a giant powder compact, which opens and shuts like Venus's scallop shell.

         The highpoint of Wagner's added business comes when the duchess is engaging in her favourite sexual practice with the waiter she's ordered from Room Service, and a young man (the choreographer, Tom Baert) is thrust up between them, and does a complete turn to show us that he's completely naked. It adds just the right touch of surrealism to Philip Hensher's wickedly funny libretto and Adès's hugely inventive score.

May 1, 2010 4:28 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on May 1, 2010 4:28 PM.

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