What difference does a performance make?


As has happened on many previous occasions, two new recordings of the same Violin Concerto were released this month.  As has happened on few if any previous occasions, it’s a Violin Concerto by a living composer, and a youngish (43) composer at that.  Huh!  Time then, thought I, to get to know the work in question, Thomas Adès Violin Concerto, “Concentric Paths.”

If his name doesn’t strike a chord (please pardon the expression), Thomas Adès is a brilliantly accomplished composer, pianist and conductor whose arrival on the British classical scene some twenty years ago was met with mucher ado than that of anyone since Benjamin Britten, with whom Adès is often compared.  As his worklist grows, so does Adès’s reputation as one of the most important composers around, to the point where his gruffly handsome, trim-bearded visage can occasionally break through the performing superstars’ near-monopoly over the covers of the classical mags.  Though Adès works in many genres, he’s attracted most international attention for his operas, especially “The Tempest,” a critical and popular hit last season at the Met.

Serendipitously, Adès’s Violin Concerto would make for a compact but fairly complete introduction to his compelling sound-world.  Intricate to (but only occasionally beyond) the point of finnickiness, abounding in high-flying pyrotechnics, filled with ever-changing colors and shades, extremely wide in dynamic and expressive range, Adès’s music is well-suited to those who like their music up-to-date but still grounded (pun intended, as I’ll explain) in the past.  Perhaps he’s the closest thing to a modern, real-life Alex Hollenius, the composer portrayed by Claude Rains in the film “Deception,” and whose music was described in the script as combining “the rhythm of today with the melody of yesterday.”

As to the work’s sub-title, “Concentric Paths,” here’s the composer’s description:

‘This concerto has three movements, like most, [the movements are called
Rings – Paths – Rounds] but it is really more of a triptych, as the middle one
is the largest. It is the “slow” movement, built from two large, and very many
small, independent cycles, which overlap and clash, sometimes violently, in
their motion towards resolution.
The outer movements too are circular in design, the first fast, with sheets
of unstable harmony in different orbits, the third playful, at ease, with stable
cycles moving in harmony at different rates.’

To which I would only add briefly that the violin writing in the first movement intentionally resembles the ultra-coloratura melodies for the literally and figuratively airborne character of Ariel in “The Tempest.”  And that the second movement is a modern take on the “ground” (there’s that pun), by which we refer to musical variations on a repeated bass line and/or chordal pattern — you know, like the blues, or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Anyhow, I took out the score at a local library, got my hands on the original recording conducted by Adès and featuring the Concerto’s original soloist Anthony Marwood, and downloaded (in CD quality, of course) the new recording on the Bis label by violinist Peter Herresthal with Andrew Manze conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra.  I checked out on Spotify the other new recording on the Avie label, with soloist Agustin Hadelich and conductor Hannu Lintu, but won’t comment on it until I can hear it in full CD quality.  (Anyone want to sponsor this blog by gifting me a copy?  I can’t send you a coffee mug, but you will earn the great thanks of all readers.)

Thusly set up, I plunged in, with the new Bis recording as my aural guide.  And from the start, some things about the work started to annoy me.  Why did the violin writing in the first movement have to be so bloody screechy?  Ariel, Shmariel — if it sounds bad, it is bad.  And why did the orchestral interjections have to be either so murky or so thuddingly ugly?  As for the second movement, starting with a string (ahem) of unrelenting double, triple and fourple stops on the violin — OK, I get that we’re trying to rock like Bach (e.g., the Chaconne) here.  But at this degree of difficulty, it’s impossible to play these chords in tune and with good tone.  Again, u-g-l-y!  Then what really drove me nuts later in the second movement was the positively anal rhythmic notation in the solo violin.  Microdivisions within subdivisions within triplets within quintuplets within constantly changing meter — get over yourself, Dude, and stop showing off!  The third movement was less objectionable, or maybe I was worn out by then, though it’s moto could have used more mojo.

Well, that wasn’t fun.  But what a poor critic I would be if I didn’t give Mr. Adès a second chance.  So, I slipped in the original recording, put down the score, and — ahah!  That’s what Adès meant by the Ariel-like violin in the first movement: vertiginous, death-defying but secure!  That’s what the second-movement multiple-stops were meant to sound like: clear, ringing, beautiful and bold!  That’s why the finnicky notation in the second movement: the violin solo is gradually unpinned from its metrical moorings until it has slipped into its own rhythmic dimension, as happens in lots of Charles Ives!  And the finale really cooks!  You know, this is really a very cool piece after all — not a tour-de-farce  but a tour-de-force.

In other words, it wasn’t the piece that pissed me off first time around.  It was the performance.  However fine these performers may be in other repertoire, they can’t play the Concerto.  And if theirs were the only recording available of “Concentric Circles,” it would be a shame.  So, music fans, remember:  If you think you hate a piece, try to hear it again under different circumstances.  It may not be such a bad piece after all.

Here’s the Concerto, done by the A-Team of Anthony Marwood and Thomas Adès:

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