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Deutsche Grammophon

Adès Piano Concertoa. Totentanzb a Kirill Gerstein pf b Christianne Stotijn mez bMark Stone bar Boston Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès DG 483 7998GH (56’ • DDD) Recorded live at Symphony Hall, Boston, b November 2016, aMarch 2019 Gramophone Award 2019 (Contemporary)

So is this the last Romantic piano concerto? It might well be; but the work’s precursor In Seven Days – arguably a more focused masterpiece – shows that Adès can do more interesting things with form (and the fertility of a small motif) than when lifting a footprint from centuries ago. There are moments when his 2018 Concerto acknowledges the very precise rotational form of In Seven Days: the treatment of the motif in the first movement (though effect trumps genuine metamorphosis) and the central Andante’s winding-down in a mirror image of the other score’s winding-up.

Otherwise we are in the footsteps of Rachmaninov, from the opening pounce to the moments of repose and loneliness, the virtuosity, the whimsical hand separation, the ‘composed’ rubato, the glitz and glamour, the sure-fire burning-out of the first movement (typical of Adès as well as of the Russian) and the slightly hollow hyperactivity of the last. It’s not hard to hear how the work has already had 50 performances scheduled, as it demands that both soloist and orchestra thrill. Are there too many pastiches – the music about music Adès does so well but with an undeniable touch of gaucheness? Yes, but they never last long and the orchestration is beguiling. So sit back and enjoy the ride, the energy, the density of the conversation and the utter brilliance with which it is realised horizontally down the page.

Because anyway it might be Totentanz (2013) that’s the true successor to In Seven Days. This proven masterpiece has inexplicably had to wait until now for the release of its first recording and is another work in which the composer rotates a motif (albeit a narrative one) multiple times and proves the fertility of his mind and architectural prowess in so doing. Gerstein and the Boston Symphony pull the piano concerto off with flair but this performance is a cut above. The score – in which Mark Stone’s death lures Christianne Stotijn’s procession of 16 characters from pope to infant into the grave – has had something of a renaissance in the past few years, Adès conducting those soloists (as here) in performances around the world.

But it can hardly have sounded as focused or as forensically brilliant as in Boston, with the same structural nous, sustained tension (tempos and volume are expertly ratcheted) and pronounced undertow. The latter comes surely from Adès’s understanding of his own use of cyclic structures, passacaglia and chord sequencing (a favourite one pops up in ‘Der Tod zum Kardinal’) but also from vivid characterisation and potent orchestral playing; the ferocity at the end of ‘Der Tod zum König’ is overwhelming. Christianne Stotijn dials down the lighting but not the intensity in ‘Der Küster’ and ‘Das Mädchen’, and even Mark Stone’s splendidly Mephistophelean Death offers her a warm hand in ‘Das Kind’, for which Adès invokes the ghost of a strophic song somewhere between Schubert and Mahler in lineage. Plenty of composers have moved on. But for proof that Adès does what he does with mind-boggling brilliance, look no further. Andrew Mellor May 2020

Bach Six French Suites, BWV812-817 Murray Perahia pf DG b 479 6565GH2 (92’ • DDD) Gramophone Award 2017 (Instrumental)

Recent research shows that, though divorce rates are falling in the UK, there’s an upward trend among the over-50s. The theory is that now we’re longer lived, we’re less inclined to settle for familiar domesticity when we could be off sailing the seven seas. That might account for Murray Perahia – 70 next April – calling time on Sony Classical after an apparently happy marriage of 43 years. So here he is setting off for pastures new with DG; and, honeymoon period or not, the fit looks good with this, his first recording of Bach’s French Suites, pieces that have been in his concert repertoire for decades.

In the booklet interview Perahia reveals that his first encounter with Bach in concert was as a teenager when he heard Pablo Casals conducting the St Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall. Perahia and Casals, though temperamentally very different, have in common a sense of bringing across Bach the man rather than Bach the god. And that’s particularly pertinent in the French Suites, the most approachable – though no less inspiring or perfectly conceived – of Bach’s keyboard suites.

As we expect from Perahia, everything sounds natural and inevitable. Ego doesn’t come into it: rather, he acts as a conduit between composer and audience with a purity that few can emulate (I’m put in mind of Goode, Brendel and the new boy on the block, Levit). Ah yes, ‘intellectual’ pianists, I hear you mutter. But to describe any of these figures as merely ‘intellectual’ would be to miss out the huge humanity of their playing.

Take the opening Allemande of the Fourth Suite: in Perahia’s hands it’s a sinuous, conversational affair and the way he colours the lines as Bach reaches into the upper register is done with enormous subtlety. Or sample the Sarabande of the same suite, simultaneously intimate yet with true gravity. He brings out the left hand’s largely stepwise motion to a nicety – sometimes reassuring, sometimes questioning.

Perahia is not an artist who takes Bach to extremes: he doesn’t intervene in the way that Maria João Pires or Piotr Anderszewski can do to such mesmerising effect. Take the gigues, for instance. Some take the buoyant Gigue of the Fifth Suite at a more headlong pace, yet Perahia’s feels just so: the rhythms are bright and springy, full of energy without freneticism, and joy is palpable in every note. Or that of the Second Suite, which again sounds completely inevitable, even when he spices it, on its repeats, with dazzlingly daring ornamentation that underlines the inherent dissonances within Bach’s counterpoint. Compared to this, Peter Hill seems a touch staid, Ekaterina Derzhavina somewhat terse, though Pires’s utterly forlorn interpretation is compelling in an entirely different way.


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