Someone at Symphony Hall could use a battery of full spectrum lights, or at least a hug, judging by the cavalcade of death in recent programs. Thomas Adès joined the procession beginning his first concert as Artistic Partner with the Boston Symphony with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and closing it with his own Totentanz. SibeliusTapiola provided a gust of cool crisp Nordic air but little respite, despite a deceptively peaceful ending.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voice
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voice
With the exception of Tapiola, this is the same program Adès put together for Totentanz’s world première at the 2013 Proms. The addition of the Sibelius, however, knit the three pieces in a way the Proms premiere didn’t, both in what all three composers share stylistically and in their use of the orchestra. All three are rhythmically and harmonically bold and all make eloquent use of the darkest colors of the orchestra (an aspect spotlit by Adès’ placement of the cellos along the lip of the stage) and of the violins playing in unison at the highest extent of their range.

Compact and clocking in at a little over twenty minutes, Britten’s Sinfonia was composed against the backdrop of the death of Britten’s mother and the gathering clouds of war. Each of its three movements takes its inspiration from a section of the Requiem Mass – Lacrymosa, Dies irae, and Requiem aeternam. The conspicuous histrionic flair and sharply delineated emotions of the symphony led Serge Koussevitzky to commission Peter Grimes. Adès banked his interpretation on these two characteristics with expansiveness and rhythmic clarity driving the drama without allowing its violence to overwhelm. Most unusual was Britten’s conception of the Dies irae, usually the pretext for a full-throated roar from the orchestra. Instead it was a galloping, vertiginous, movement which, in the hands of Adès and the BSO, brought to mind the confusion and horror of a fleeing populace. The solace of the final movement gained by contrast.

Tapiola palpably lowered the temperature. Adès, like Beecham before him, was able to find some warmth in Sibelius’ final, enigmatic composition but this was definitely a wilderness you wouldn’t want to find yourself in after dark. Mysterious, foreboding, and gelid, Tapio’s realm evoked awe, not some arcadian idyll. The BSO’s low strings and woodwinds cast the necessary colors the violins the mystery in a keen collaboration with Adès in scene painting.

Totentanz takes its text from a well known 15th century cloth frieze in Lübeck’s Marienkirche, destroyed in World War II. The frieze depicted members of the various social ranks from the Pope and Emperor on down to a child being take by the hand by a skeletal, burial-shrouded Death. Adès assigns Death to a baritone and all his quarry to a mezzo. Both Christianne Stotijn and Mark Stone brought experience to bear – Stotijn having sung the world and U.S. premieres and Stone the U.S. one, all under Adès. 

Death is cold, curt, and sardonic to those at the top of the social ladder, increasingly patient and sympathetic as he reaches the final five of the fifteen people he claims. When he comes for the fifteenth, the child, his dance becomes a lullaby. Stone modulated his lyric baritone to communicate this emotional arc, starting out harsh and hard and ending warm and rich-toned. Stotijn's challenge was greater, each different encounter a mini-drama which called for different shadings  and emphases. She didn’t change her voice, just its expressive range, to convey the various reactions to Death’s invitation to the dance. She added a sepulchral quality to her characterizations by beginning a tone hollow, then gradually fleshing out the tone. 

Adès’ orchestra is large; the percussion section alone calls for eight players and includes exotica such as a referee’s whistle, whips, anvils, slapsticks, and six sets of “bones”. They give a biting, bristling quality to the score overall and help stamp each encounter with its own distinct color and character. Despite the lugubrious subject matter there was a great sense of joy in the music making as the orchestra took up the score’s challenges and Adès ably guided them through its difficulties, a tour de force which left one eager to hear the piece again.