The Piano Music of Adès

cover - 8.574109

ADÈS: Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face. Still Sorrowing. Darkness Visible. Blanca Variations. Traced Overhead. Mazurkas for Piano. Souvenir / Han Chen, pno / Naxos 8.574109

I’ve said before, several times in fact, that although I admire Thomas Adès’ short pieces, which tend to be imaginative and interesting, I find his longer works, i.e. his opera The Tempest, to be disorganized and sometimes stylistically incongruous. Happily, this album of his piano pieces fits into the former category, and they are very well played by Taiwan-born pianist Han Chen. Chen, who studied at both Juilliard and the New England Conservatory, has not only a fluent technique but also real sweep and drive to his playing, and in those places where the music needs it, such as the first part of his Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face, he can emulate a bit of jazz “swing” that the music calls for.

This opening suite is a marvelous reduction of the score of Adès’ first opera, written in 1995 on the story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits shocked and titillated Great Britain in the 1960s. When I say “marvelous reduction,” of course, I simply allude to the music present on this CD, since I’ve never heard a note of the original score. Although Adès juxtaposes several different themes and tempi in these four pieces, which sometimes leads to a bit of stylistic incongruity, the more compact form of piano pieces seems to make the music “jell” very well. Of course, Chen helps the music along by binding his phrases beautifully and never losing sight of each piece’s structure. No. III gets very complex indeed around the three-minute mark, with the pianist compelled to play two very different rhythms against one another, which sometimes leads to not only rhythmic but harmonic clashes. The brief fourth piece has some very syncopated ragtime rhythms, which Chen again plays well.

Still Sorrowing, from 1992, is a very strange piece, comprised mostly of atonal gestures rather than anything resembling a real melodic line. The middle-range piano strings are dampened, which also creates a bleak sound. The title apparently refers to John Dowland’s Semper Dowland simper dolens, but there are little or no musical allusions to Dowland in the piece. Eventually it becomes quite rhythmically complex, creating not two but three different rhythms to be played against one another. I have no idea how Chen managed this! A bit later, this complexity diminishes in volume but gets even more complex as the tempo increases. A very odd piece indeed.

Darkness Visible, also from 1992, follows the same vein but without the muted piano strings. This is a rewriting, or as Adès calls it, an “explosion” of Dowland’s lute song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, and if you listen carefully here you can hear the original melody sneaking through, generally played in the upper right hand while the rest of the right hand (and the left) are playing odd, out-of-tonality chords and countermelodies.

By putting very little space on the CD between Darkness Visible and the Blanca Variations (2015), with which it has no real connection, the latter almost sounded like a positive answer to the former. This is a set of variations on the Ladino folk tune “Lavada la blanca niña.” For those of you who are wondering what the heck “Ladino” is, it’s “a Romance language consisting of a group of dialects that some consider part of a unitary Rhaeto-Romance language, mainly spoken in the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy in the provinces of South Tyrol, Trentino, and Belluno (viz: Wikipedia).” So now you know. I guess the word means “little Latin” or something. These get very rhythmically complex indeed.

Traced Overhead is the only piece on this CD that I knew in advance, since I heard in on one of the old St. Paul Sunday radio shows many years ago, played by Imogen Cooper. Chen’s performance is just as interesting but also a bit more visceral in its rhythmic punch and forward propulsion. Written in three movements, of which the first (“Sursum”) is only 44 seconds long, it is actually a single piece lasting 10:39 with three sections, of which the last, “Chori,” is the longest.

We end our survey of Adès’ piano music with his 3 Mazurkas of 2009, requested by pianist Emmanuel Ax to celebrate Chopin’s anniversary in 2009. They are splendid pieces, far more interesting than any mazurka that Chopin ever wrote, the true successor to Szymanowski’s mazurkas (I wonder if Adès knew the Szymanowski pieces before writing these). A detailed analysis of each of them is unnecessary; the listening experience will tell you all. I will only note that the last of them is in a very slow tempo and almost sounds more like a fantasia. Souvenir, the last piece on this disc, is slower still. To be honest, I found it to be the least interesting work presented here, slow but without any particularly interesting features. It sounded like a bad piece of fin-de-siècle-era salon music.

This is a simply wonderful disc, much needed and appreciated!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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