Thursday, November 12, 2015


Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng, pianists, performed the following concert at the newly-renovated Herbst Theater a couple of weeks ago:

GYÖRGY LIGETI: Sonatina (1950), for piano four-hands
NANCARROW, arr. ADÈS: Studies No. 6 & 7
ADÈS: Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face for Two Pianos
MESSIAEN: Visions de l’Amen

The program was not quite in the order above; they played the Ligeti between the two Nancarrow studies and the Concert Paraphrase. 

The Nancarrow study arrangements, by Adès himself, made these works, written for player piano, playable by mere humans. They really do need four virtuoso hands to play, and my recollection is that these are not remotely the most impossible of the studies for flesh and blood and bone, either. 

The studies are both charming and astonishing, and the two pianists brought them off with flair. The Ligeti might have been my favorite work on the program; the three movements are brief and characterful, and not very much like the composer's spiky works from later in his career.

I'm hoping to see Powder Her FaceAdès's notorious first opera, one of these days, but the fact is that the Concert Paraphrase is too damn long and meandering and too damn hard to follow unless you know the opera already. Hell, for all I know, you can't follow it even if you do know the opera!

Adès played the solo piano version of the piece on his first San Francisco Performances program in 2010; I was more impressed with it then. Oh, well - it's also possible that I was more awake.

Sigh; Friday night concerts. Even with a 7:30 start time, I was not at my most alert, and I think I dozed through about 1/3 of the Messiaen. Yeah, I know, I know, that stuff can be loud and some of it certainly was. 

That said, I decided to skip reading the movement titles and just listen to the music, and boy, that resulted in a few surprises. It is just more brutal at times than you would expect based on Messiaen's habit of incorporating fantastic birdsong and Catholic mysticism in his music. 

As for the playing, Cheng is really marvelous, with a great touch and great range. This time around I found Adès on the heavy-handed and unsubtle side, sometimes overpowering Cheng even when he was on the piano that was at half-stick rather than the piano with the lid removed entirely. Joshua Kosman noted in a Tweet that he had reservations about Adès's pianism in that 2010 recital. Well, he was right. (And here I must note that "postmodernist scrimshaw" is sheer genius, the kind of phrase that makes other reviewers jealous.)

Hmm, I see from Joshua's review that the Concert Paraphrase was 18 minutes long in 2015. I think it was 25 minutes this year.  Tom, you may have heard that brevity is soul of wit, and it applies in this case.

No comments: