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THOMAS ADÈS: Asyla; Tevot; Polaris; Brahms – London Sym. Orch./Thomas Adès – LSO Live (Blu-ray & SACD)

Audiophile quality in these works by this always provocative composer.

THOMAS ADÈS: Asyla; Tevot; Polaris; Brahms – London Sym. Orch./Thomas Adès – LSO Live, LSO0798 (Blu-ray audio-only and SACD), 62:55, (3/03/17) ****:

Thomas Adès has become, arguably and justifiably, England’s most prominent living composer. His music is regularly very creatively scored, picturesque and frequently a bit thought provoking.

This audiophile quality package holds two different discs; a Blu-ray audio and a SACD version. I listened to both versions and they are both very clean, well balanced and “lively.”  I have no clear preference as I didn’t hear a definite difference between the two. They are both very fine iterations of the same live recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting. Adès has something in common with America’s John Adams in that they are both excellent and well-known composers who are also very fine conductors, it seems. (I’ve seen Adams and his music live on several occasions. One day I would love to duplicate that experience with Thomas and his work.)

To the music itself, these are three of the composer’s most acclaimed works and – to his credit – these pieces have been performed and recorded more than once; unlike a lot of contemporary music. I have the previous London recordings of Asyla and Tevot as well as a recording of Polaris with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

Asyla is, basically, a symphony and Adès describes the work as being written in a “safe form.” His analogy to ‘asyla’ (plural of ‘asylum’) being shelter from madness is both coy as well as largely true to most concert audiences. Tevot is genuinely one of my favorite of Adès’ works. The title come from the same word which, from Hebrew, is either just “words” or the musical terminology (in Hebrew) for “bars.” There is a connotation to the singular, ‘tevah’, as being a form of protection used in the Torah when describing the Noah and Moses stories. All by themselves and without the meanings within their titles, both Asyla and Tevot are wonderfully captivating works and I liked learning about the connections between the two concepts.

Polaris is subtitled a “Voyage for Orchestra” and the voyage here is intended to emulate or pay homage to the use of Polaris, the north pole star, in helping to guide mariners journeying to the New World. Adès also explains that the work uses a form of cyclic harmonies that begin and end this ‘voyage’ in the same place of tonality. Again, all implication aside, Polaris is another very fine work with rich orchestration and a very involving sound world.

The very brief (five-minute) Brahms was written – along with works by Berio and Birtwhistle – to celebrate pianist Alfred Brendel’s 70th birthday, and using a text by Brendel. There is a very clever and somewhat unsettling use of a baritone soloist in the midst of some orchestral “apparitions” of Brahms to help paint a picture of the great composer. I think, predictably, Adès uses snippets of Brahms’ actual work, such as the Scherzo from his Symphony No. 4 to paint this picture. I liked this little work but it is not the impressive masterwork that the other three herein clearly are.

I have enjoyed Thomas Adès’ music for many years now and he continues to produce very engaging music with wonderfully exotic sounds and dramatic flow. Kudos to the London Symphony, as well, for their always fine playing and for the audio quality of their ‘LSO Live’ series using the latest hi-res recording technologies.  Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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