Thomas Adès Day review – fierce, razor sharp portrait of the composer

Andrew Clements
‘A whole tapestry of musical and extra-musical allusions’ … Thomas Adès, here conducting the BSO. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

The Wigmore Hall’s Xenakis day last month concentrated exclusively on the works of the Greek composer. But the latest of its contemporary music events set Thomas Adès’s music in a much wider context, putting it alongside works by composers whom he admires and who have influenced him. After a lunchtime concert that had included Adès’s Piano Quintet and his second string quartet, The Four Quarters, together with piano duets by Walton and Lutosławski, the evening concert, featuring the Calder Quartet and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with Adès himself and Nicolas Hodges sharing pianistic duties, added pieces by Kurtág, Janáček and Gerald Barry to the portrait too.

There were just two of Adès’s own works. The bright, brash Concerto Conciso, which he wrote for BCMG in 1997, packs three movements into just eight minutes of brittle polyrhythms, while his first quartet, Arcadiana, now more than 20 years old, still serves as a perfect demonstration of how he can weave a whole tapestry of musical and extra-musical allusions into his works yet create something that is utterly distinctive and entirely his own.

Arcadiana’s scheme of seven short movements harks back to Kurtág, and the Calders had begun the concert with an intense, razor-sharp account of his Officium Breve, 15 tiny movements that are both a memorial to a close friend and a tribute to Webern, from whom Kurtág’s miniaturisation in turn derives. Adès himself supplied the Janáček – more miniatures, three of the Intimate Sketches, and a bold, fierce performance of the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (From the Street).

And for something completely different there was Barry’s 1995 Octet, “melodies with a storm”, as the composer describes it; it demanded rhythmic precision from BCMG and fearlessness from Hodges, and both rose to the challenge magnificently.