Despite the frequency with which the two composers are compared, Thomas Adès’ music seldom sounds very much like that of Benjamin Britten. But Adès has an uncanny knack of performing Britten’s music in such a way that it resembles his own. It happened at the Proms this summer, when he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a punchy, modernistic Sinfonia da requiem, and it happened again at Milton Court on Monday night, when he and violinist Anthony Marwood played the Op. 6 Suite with the infectious, jolting, exploratory energy of Adès’ own music. Britten can hardly ever have sounded as contemporary as he did here, and this suite can surely not have received any better advocacy than this performance gave it. Every moment thrilled, whether because of the extraordinary ease of Marwood’s high harmonics in “Lullaby”, or the nigh-on manic exuberance of the final “Waltz”.

Thomas Adès © Maurice Foxall
Thomas Adès
© Maurice Foxall

The concert could hardly have started better, and the players kept the pace up throughout. Part of the exciting new venue Milton Court’s impressive Alumni Recital Series, the concert saw Adès joined not only by Marwood but also by clarinettist Matthew Hunt and cellist Louise Hopkins for a varied but highly consistent evening of chamber music by Adès and others.

Matthew Hunt introduced himself with Gerald Barry’s 1991 composition Low, a piece which, as the composer has astutely pointed out, is “sometimes high and sometimes low”. Clarinet and piano work together for the most part, spinning out an obsessive, winding melody, relentless to the point that Hunt had to spread his music out over four stands to avoid page-turns. The perfect, witty showpiece for performers as brilliant as these, Low makes it clear why Adès rates Barry so highly – it’s music that, for all its artistic pretensions, is obviously made to be listened to and simply enjoyed; music that demands an audience, and treats it well.

Though the piece couldn’t sound much more different from Low, it’s the same approach Adès takes in Lieux retrouvés, a four-movement suite for cello and piano. Whether delicate, grand, sweet or squeaky, this is a generous piece for the listener, filled with gorgeous melodic moments, heartbreakingly soft gestures and typically deft Adesian flourishes. Adès and Louise Hopkins did the piece full justice, forming a tasteful end to the first half.

All the players thus introduced, they returned in larger combinations after the interval. Stravinsky’s suite from The Soldier’s Tale for piano, violin and clarinet featured some brilliant bravura playing from these fine musicians and was a thrillingly tight performance. This was primarily a virtuosic rendition, though, which lacked a sense of shared purpose – I wondered if perhaps it had been sidelined during rehearsals, with time instead being devoted to the two tougher ensemble pieces to follow.

Adès’ own Catch and Court Studies brought all four musicians together for the concert’s end – though it took Hunt the whole of Catch to get as far as his seat. This engaging, humorous, rather perplexing piece from 1991 has the clarinettist begin off stage – and making superb use of the layout of the Milton Court hall, Hunt had seemingly made it round most of the building by the time he united with the other players in the piece’s closing moments. Musically, the piece is just as compelling as the rest of Adès’ output, and the clarinet antics add an extra element of humour. I’m not sure what the point of it all is, though – with its unorthodox concept, Catch seems to be driving towards some sort of particular meaning, but I simply can’t think what it could be.

The Court Studies, by contrast, sound like totally abstract music – even despite their actually being extracts from his opera The Tempest. It’s a remarkable transformation this music has undergone, from its grand operatic origins to this miniature form, but it is totally comfortable in this arrangement – brilliantly colourful, in fact, with these instruments. The final moments, for Marwood’s violin alone, adapt the King of Naples’ mournful words lamenting the apparent loss of his son – here, though, it’s simply a beautiful, tragic musical gesture.

The concert was greeted with cheers and whistles of a magnitude you don’t expect at a contemporary music recital – this more-than-welcome change of convention was proof of various things, including the youth of the audience and the huge popularity of Adès. More pertinently, though, it was proof of the excellence of what we had just heard. At any rate, if this is the future of classical music, it’s actually pretty exciting. And if Milton Court can keep its standards this high, then this will be the place to be.

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