Like any good host who wants to make sure that their guests feel at home, when prominent British composer Thomas Adès was set to debut at the head of the Berliner Philharmoniker, a programme was assembled that could give a taste of his musical world. What resulted was both a mirror of and a homage to Adès’ life as a musician: two pieces that have been dear to him since his formative years (his Herzenswerke, as he called them in an interview), combined with two of his own works. More specifically, this unusual portrait featured the overture of Berlioz’ Les Francs-Juges, Gerald Barry’s Chevaux-de-frise, and Adès’ own Violin Concerto and his Exterminating Angel Symphony. So what was the audience to grasp from such a portrait?

Thomas Adès conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

Although maybe not immediately apparent, one common trait did emerge from Adès’ approach to each score. As the evening progressed, it became clear that the composer wished to emphasise an energetic, somewhat restless streak that underscored the entire programme. Adès didn’t falter before the ever-moving, unabating quality of the music; instead, in it he found his element, proving himself able to maintain a firm grip on four different yet equally demanding works. It is perhaps in this tireless intensity that one may find a distinctive trait of Adès as a musician.

Easily the most fortunate piece from Berlioz’ early, severely fragmented opera, the overture of Les Francs-Juges showcases some of what would then be identified as the composer’s best qualities, such as melodic appeal and timbral ingenuity. Special balances within the orchestra require careful attention from the conductor, who is expected to adapt to shifting dynamics so not to jeopardise certain instrumental effects and phrasing arcs. While engaging, Adès’ conducting felt slightly out of focus, sometimes forfeiting nuance for an overall pleasant yet not entirely enthralling interpretation.

Pekka Kuusisto and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

Also relying on scrupulous orchestral writing, Adès’ Violin Concerto is a short but fascinating work which explores the concept of circularity in music, its subtitle being Concentric Paths. Interweaving repetition and evolution, sensuality and coarseness, the concerto is also a pièce de résistance for soloists, who are faced with an extremely challenging part. For the occasion, joining Adès and the orchestra was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. It is hard to describe the mesmerising effect Kuusisto achieved. The violinist, whose fidgety attitude on stage seemed to enhance his mastery of the instrument, gave breath to Adès’s peculiar prosody in what felt like an impeccable performance. Kuusisto’s playing remained a vibrant, palpable presence even when it merged in symbiosis with the orchestra.

In between the two Adès pieces, Barry’s Chevaux-de-frise further raised the temperature with its unwavering vehemence. Mostly built on repeating rhythmic blocks whose reiterated dissonances are intentionally flaunted, the orchestral work leaves no room for rest – its structure and general tone resembling the very spiked barriers whose name it carries. Indeed, Adès navigated through it with an equally belligerent attitude, maintaining a relentlessness that was nearly overwhelming. The conductor didn’t shy away from the roaring sonorities of the score’s brass section, pushing the orchestra almost to the limit.

Thomas Adès conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

Sharing an equally ominous name, The Exterminating Angel Symphony is actually a four-movement suite that Adès drew from his opera of the same name, after Buñuel’s 1962 film. The symphony re-elaborates material from its source, tracing the plot in its some of its main moments but also working as a standalone piece. While not exactly a conventional example of its genre, the symphony has its own musical coherence which Adès highlighted with convincing dramatic effect. Indeed, no more fitting ending to the concert could be conceived than the last movement’s rapturous yet fractured waltzes. 

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