Thomas Adès at 50 review – something old and something new in superb birthday celebration

Thomas Adès turned 50 in March, a birthday that will be marked by concerts and premieres throughout the year – perhaps most notably with the full length ballet The Dante Project, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, at Covent Garden in October. First, however, came this Barbican concert, with the Britten Sinfonia, streamed live online and in front of a socially distanced audience in the hall. Introduced from the platform with irrepressible enthusiasm by Zoë Martlew, the programme placed Adès’s own music alongside that of Beethoven, Janáček and Sibelius, composers he admires and acknowledges as influences.

The centrepiece was the UK premiere of one of Adès’s most recent works, Shanty – Over the Sea for string orchestra, given its first performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra in February. Written at the height of last year’s lockdown – when shanties themselves captured the imaginations of so many – it’s a hypnotic, captivating piece in which a timeless melody drifts in and out of focus over the steady beat of persistent pizzicatos before fading into an eerie silence suggestive of vast expanses of open sea. The beauty of the string writing recalls Sibelius, whose Rakastava Adès conducted earlier in the evening in a performance of quiet intensity, quite superbly played.

There are also points of similarity between Janáček’s 1925 Concertino and Adès’s early Concerto Conciso, one of the works that put him on the musical map in the 1990s: written for piano and chamber ensemble, they share elements of aphoristic compression, thematic and instrumental sparseness, and a sense of music being pared down to its absolute basics. Adès directed both works from the keyboard. The Concertino, with fragmentary dialogues between piano and horn or clarinet, snatches of lyricism, and a “bonkers last movement” (according to Martlew), bristled with tension. Concerto Conciso, a forbidding if virtuoso exercise in rhythmic complexity, was played with tremendous precision.

Adès and the Britten Sinfonia, meanwhile, have been much admired for their Beethoven interpretations, and extracts from The Creatures of Prometheus framed the main programme. There were some lovely flute and harp solos in the Adagio and real verve in the finale, which Beethoven famously reworked in the last movement of the Eroica. A really beautiful performance: by the end I found myself hankering to hear them in the complete work.

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