Adès and friends offer a rewarding afternoon of song

Mon Oct 16, 2017 at 12:22 pm
Thomas Adès and Sally Matthews performed Sunday at Zankel Hall. Photo: Pete Checchia

Thomas Adès and Sally Matthews performed Sunday at Zankel Hall. Photo: Pete Checchia

It’s the month of Thomas Adès in New York. Next week the Metropolitan Opera will give the American premiere of his new opera The Exterminating Angel, and on Sunday Carnegie Hall presented “Thomas Adès and Friends,” a recital featuring several singers who will star in the new production.

Alice Coote’s unfortunate withdrawal due to illness may have threatened to take some of the shine off the performance—and might have explained the wide swath of empty seats in the back of Zankel Hall—but in the end, the program supplied nearly two hours of fine artistry and rewarding song.

Adès, of course, is known primarily as a composer whose operas and symphonic pieces are regularly played on the world’s leading stages. He is also an exceptional accompanist, which was his primary role in Sunday afternoon’s recital. He drew gorgeous colors out of the piano, playing with perfect metrical freedom. As a pianist Adès brings to the music a sense of detail that enriches the score without making anything stick out unnaturally.

There was a single solo piano work on the program, one of Adès’s own—Darknesse Visible, a short but moving piece, chilly and evocative. Dark drama is effected through big, crashing chords that punctuate a faint tremolo in the right hand. Like much of Adès’s best work, Darknesse Visible is melodic without being saccharine, drawing his audience into a rich sound-world and offering real substance to consider, as well.

There was much to appreciate in tenor Joseph Kaiser’s approach to his selections, and yet his voice seemed challenged by the music all afternoon. In the Schubert set that began the program, he showed a bright tone and confident, well-defined phrasing. Yet his intonation wandered, and his diction was oddly muddy for a lieder singer. Most noticeable was a bony edge to his tone that was only emphasized by the hard acoustic of Zankel Hall. In Britten’s Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente later on, he was able to get by somewhat in the declamatory “Menschenbeifall,” but in the rest of the set he seemed to be shouting just to achieve a clear tone, eliding much of the nuance in Britten’s writing.

Like his collaborators on Sunday, countertenor Iestyn Davies has been far more active in Europe than in the United States, though he ends this year with a busy New York schedule. In addition to his appearance in The Exterminating Angel, he will serve as the singing voice of the famous castrato of the title in Farinelli and the King on Broadway. Judging by Sunday’s performance, Davies is a countertenor worth hearing any time, in any rep.

Like many countertenors, Davies sings with beaming clarity, but he also boasts a warmth and suppleness of tone that are quite rare. His Purcell selections, in realizations by Adès, showed nimble grace, and “Tränenregen,” from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, was sublime, the slightest tinge of melancholy discoloring the calm contentment of the song.

Davies was just at home in more prickly repertoire, namely Adès’s own The Lover in Winter, a setting from 1989 of four Latin poems. In this brief set one can hear the 18-year-old composer experimenting, pushing his boundaries with dramatic effects. In the third of the four, “Modo frigescrit quidquid est,” the vocal line follows a shrill descant over a blur of colors punctuated by aggressive pulses in the piano. Largely absent is the keen, searching feel that gives much of Adès’s later work its emotional immediacy, though there was a hint of that wandering lyricism in “Nec limpha caret alveus.”

Two Purcell duets, Britten’s arrangements of “Lost is my quiet forever” and “Sound the trumpet,” made a beautiful blend of Davies with Sally Matthews’ crystalline soprano. But the most astonishing performances on Sunday’s program came in the set with which Matthews finished the top half. Her first offering was “The Turkish Mouse,” from Three Cautionary Tales, a Turkish folk poem. A charming and peculiar ditty by the contemporary English composer John Woolrich, it is a tart, quirky piece of romping humor, and Matthews delivered the text with relish.

She showed the depth of her artistry in a selection of Schubert lieder, starting with “Der Unglükliche,” where she sang with a focused, cool tone that could be either haunting or bracing, depending on the intensity of the music. In “Seligkeit” she perfectly captured that essentially Schubertian melancholic joy, while Adès played the waltzing accompaniment with music-box charm.

“Gretchen am Spinnrade” was Schubert’s first major success in achieving the powerful fusion of music with lyric verse that came to define his style of Lieder. Matthews’s reading added breathtaking emotion to the mix. There was audible distress in her interpretation from the start, and her stunning dynamic range made for a riveting performance of a truly great song.

Adès came out to announce a group encore, then took a seat in a back corner of the stage and listened with a satisfied smile as his fellows performed it: “Under this stone,” a three-part round by Purcell that combined tenor, countertenor, and soprano in a full, bright blend of sound.

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