Adès Conducts Adès, review: a thrilling tour-de-force from Britain's weirdest composer

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Composer and conductor Thomas Adès
Exhilarating and exhausting: composer and conductor Thomas Adès Credit: Deutsche Grammophon

If you know Thomas Adès is as famous as it’s possible for a classical composer to be, but have only heard the sweetly vapid score the 49-year-old composed for the film Colette and are wondering what all the fuss is about, this CD will enlighten you. It’s a hurricane of brilliant musical invention, which is exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure.

The writhing tangle of glittery sounds, sinister galumphing basses, madly capering rhythms and titanic piano virtuosity just never stops. Even the moments of apparent simplicity, like the solemn chorale that begins the second movement of the Piano Concerto, have an odd, lurid colour to them.

That Adès’s music is insanely brilliant in a surreal way is undeniable. Is it also any good? The second piece on this disc, entitled Totentanz (Dance of Death), I would say is a proper masterpiece, because here Adès’s style is so perfectly married to the subject matter.

It’s a setting of a medieval German poem in English translation, which imagines the figure of Death offering an ironically tender greeting to a procession of victims arranged in rank order, from Pope down through merchant and peasant to infant, before despatching them to their graves.

Baritone Mark Stone impersonates Death brilliantly, but mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn is even better at catching the desperate and woeful pleading of his victims. Behind them, the orchestral music capers and grimaces with the gleeful horror of a Bosch painting.

At the end, real human feeling finally enters the scene, as a tender Mahler-imitation accompanies the sad song of the infant. But it soon turns horrific, as if worms are invading the infant’s corpse. You might think the other piece, prosaically entitled Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, might be a turn to normality. But Adès doesn’t do normal.

The mood is certainly more cheerful, and fleeting hints of Gershwin’s and Ravel’s piano concertos and the massive piano octaves à la Liszt nod wittily at the history of the genre. But the crazily complex rhythms – dispatched with apparently insouciant ease by pianist Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – show that delirium in Adès is never far away. Strangeness and familiarity come disconcertingly together. As Mr Spock almost said: “It’s music, captain, but not as we know it.”

Adès conducts Adès is released by Deutsche Grammophon