ADÈS: America: A Prophecy, Op. 19. The Fayrfax Carol. Fool's Rhymes, Op. 5. January Writ. Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin, Op 3a. The Lover in Winter. Life Story, Op. 8. Cardiac Arrest. Les Baricades mistérieuses (Couperin-Adès). Brahms, Op. 21.
Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano; Claron McFadden, soprano; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Tom Poster/Huw Watkins, pianists; Hugh Webb, harp; Richard Benjafield, percussion; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organist; Composers Ensemble; City of Birmingham Chorus and Orch/Thomas Adès, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57610 (F) (DDD) TT: 59:38

Boredom on a stupefying scale. This will be quick. I don't particularly enjoy writing about music I dislike and consequently don't very often. However, Adès has received so much notice, I feel compelled to throw in my worthless opinion.

Thomas Adès (pronounced "Addis?") is currently the fair son of British music. Why, I can't tell you. I got sucked into what I consider the hype surrounding him and bought recordings of both Asyla and Powder Her Face. Fortunately, I can't remember much about either of them. It's really more of the same here. I know Britain has better composers than Adès currently about, because I've heard them. Some of them are even younger than forty. Why is this guy getting work?

I should be clear. There are many types of bad composers. It's not that Adès is unskilled. He's not an autodidactic Self-Proclaimed Genius who has no idea of the lowest note of the oboe or how he can find out. His orchestration is often brilliant and imaginative. However, I find more real music in Brian Wilson's "Help Me, Rhonda" than in any work by Adès. America: A Prophecy, for example, steals its title, and nothing else, from Blake. It's a lament for the Mayans and their conquest and genocide by Spain. The music essentially varies a modal cell, representing the Indians, and juxtaposes it with some 16th-century Spanish music. There's a painterly battle between the two groups of ideas, and the Spanish win. Sounds interesting on paper, but not in performance. The vocal part doesn't illuminate the text in any way -- one of those lines with the expressive power of a slide whistle's aimless tootles. All of the vocal music here suffers from that -- trendy texts set to supremely uninteresting and unnecessary music. The music adds nothing to the texts themselves. The two instrumental arrangements -- one of Madness's "Cardiac Arrest" and another of Couperin's "Les Baricades mistérieuses" -- engaged me the most, mainly because of the orchestration. When scoring is the only thing you can talk about, the music is in real trouble.

The performances, however, are wonderful. Soprano Claron McFadden delivers a knockout in Life Story. I've never heard a singer with her command of line and of seamless travel between classical and jazz singing. She convinces you totally. Adès specifies the model of Billie Holiday. McFadden pulls it off without the curse of artifice. Baritone Christopher Maltman sings like the great Lieder artist he is in Brahms, to a text by Alfred Brendel. The piece, I admit, is fun, mainly for all the Brahms references (particularly the second of the Vier ernste Gesänge). However, again Adès fails to find the song in the text.

It's a first-class production, and who, other than the composer, really cares?

S.G.S. (September 2004)