THOMAS ADÈS, now 42, is at the top of the British musical
ladder, writes Roderic Dunnett. His opera The
Tempest is, to my mind, one of the most significant English
operatic happenings since Peter Grimes. It was exciting,
then, to find him in a BBC Proms commission turning to almost
exactly the same subject as that treated by Gregory Rose at St
John's, Waterloo, earlier this year.
The subject of Totentanz is the terrifying visits made
by Death to figures (here) of all social backgrounds, from king to
humble child, in a series of shuddery paintings by the early
16th-century master Bernt Notke.
While Rose (Arts, 7 June) sets the still part-extant sequence
that Notke painted for Tallinn, in Estonia (now viewable in the St
Nicholas Church or Niguliste), Adès has addressed a cycle that no
longer exists: in the Marienkirche, Hamburg, it succumbed to Allied
bombing in the Second World War; but images of it survive.
Rose uses half a dozen soloists to evoke Death's courtly
victims. Adès uses two solos, a mezzo (Janet Baker's Dutch pupil
Christianne Stotijn) and the baritone Simon Keenlyside (Adès's
superb original Prospero in The Tempest). Much else was
done by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, amazingly on form, under the
composer. Much of the implied, as opposed to actual, word-painting
is yielded by fascinating oscillations and ostinati, shivering dark
woodwind, shimmering as well as often simmering strings.
Perhaps most horrifyingly, in the score as in the former
painting, is the way Adès moves last to the gathering in of the
haplessly mouthing, almost quietly gibbering child, as hope and
potential are eclipsed and its life is grubbily snuffed out by the
inexorable - so vividly evoked at St John's by a skeletal
Adès does not surpass Rose's score, which benefits from a
crucial, at times thunderous, choral element. But his, too, is a
major work, and both composers, by drawing our attention to a
significant genre, have made a huge cultural contribution.
In another Prom, Szymanowski's Third Symphony, setting rapturous
Divine-inspired texts by Jalal-ud-Din al-Rumi (variously spelt),
suffered, I thought, from some so-so, even muddy enunciation of the
Polish-from-Persian translation by the BBC Symphony Chorus with
that of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (surprisingly, as the
latter are trained by Adrian Partington and the former by Stephen
Jackson). Yet we got the gist; and what Delian rapture Szymanowski
Crisper was the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar's almost never heard
tone poem Excelsior!, yielding wonders of Wagner-inspired
orchestration (and Goethean visions) under their Danish music
director Thomas Søndergård, making his electrifying BBC Proms
début; and the best performance of Richard Strauss's equally
ecstatic Alpine Symphony - without its usual
longueurs - by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Equally uplifting was Schumann's Piano Concerto, with a
wonderful new talent, the 18-year-old Canadian Jan Lisiecki, as
soloist in the first of Sir Antony Pappano's glistening Proms: a
special performance of a work that seems to grow in stature with
The late-night concert not only shivered with ecstasy or blocked
its ears for Mittwoch aus "Licht", part of Stockhausen's
large operatic late masterpiece performed by Jeffrey Skidmore's
scintillating, bristlingly intelligent choir Ex Cathedra;
but felt the nerves tingle at the taped sounds of the same
composer's Gesang der Jünglinge: what a contrast to the
grim scything down of Totentanz's unhappy child.
Star billing, however, must surely go to the first ever "Gospel
Prom". Pastor David Daniel suggested that the (puzzlingly, mainly
white) audience become a congregation, turning the building into a
cathedral of worship - not too difficult, as, in the 1880s, the
Albert Hall dome must have seemed to rival St Peter's.
And we did. How we revelled in the massed choir medleys: "This
Little Light of Mine", "I've Got My Mind Made Up", "Jesus, Name So
Sweet", the soloist Maria Martin and the beautifully voiced
Stephanie Oyerinde triumphing among the solo voices. Some of the
solos emerging from the choir were just as good. Some "modern"
Gospel attempts, post-1945 and even post-1970, struck me as
musically (not spiritually) inferior stuff.
But nothing could match the conducting of the wonderful Ruth
Waldron. Her fizz and energy were expressed in elegant, slightly
flamboyant, and yet economical gestures that communicated
brilliantly and instantly. I would queue up to see her conduct
Bernstein's West Side Story, or Stravinsky's
Firebird. Waldron was in her element here; and so, thanks
to her, were all of us.