On 7 March, Thomas Adès conducted Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Commissioned by the BSO (with whom Adès is Artistic Partner) for Kirill Gerstein, this major statement received a rapturous response from audience and critics alike, and already seems set to become part of the repertoire.
Adès third concertante work involving piano – after Concerto Conciso and In Seven Days – this audacious 22-minute work is almost bewildering in its wealth of invention. Throughout the concerto’s three movements a highly sophisticated yet vital approach to rhythmic feel is married to a totally personal harmonic sense, and the result is a work by turns playful, sombre, rowdy and serene. Gerstein and Adès have worked together many times, both in concertos and as duo partners, and the solo writing is tailor-made for Gerstein’s combination of jaw-dropping virtuosity and musical intelligence.
‘I don’t think we have had such a piano concerto in the literature since Prokofiev and Ravel’ said Gerstein in an interview with Gramophone magazine. ‘I really think it’s a masterpiece. It’s quite concise. It does what a piano concerto should do – it has octaves, a cadenza, a slow movement of gravitas. He references the traditional models, but you never think he is doing something derivative.’ Speaking to the Boston Globe, Adès remarked: ‘If you look at, say, a lot of well-known piano concertos from the past, they have family characteristics. I find it very rewarding, increasingly, to look back down the mountain, if you like, and see the bone structure.’ Yet he cautioned that this process is ‘absolutely not’ one of taking a pre-existing structure and simply pouring something new into it. Rather, it’s a matter of ‘investigating why that structure grew in that way in the first place.’ ‘It’s no more difficult than your average very difficult concerto,’ he added, laughing.
Adès will conduct the European premiere, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, on 25 April and the concerto already has over 17 further performances scheduled, all with Gerstein as soloist. The BSO will release a recording of the work alongside Adès’s Totentanz later this year.
‘A piano concerto in the grand tradition… Adès may be the most sought-after musician of our time… he has written a tonal piece that is simultaneously thoughtful and musical, rooted in the past but forward-looking, and also crowd-pleasing… as the concerto concluded, with a rain of notes from the piano, and the orchestra in full throttle, it was an ethereal corona of glockenspiel and marimba that I found most moving.’
The Wall Street Journal (David Mermelstein), 8 March 2019
‘Quite wonderful… an affectionate, joyous, remarkably uncomplicated tribute to tradition. The writing is labyrinthine, to be sure, but this is a composer so sure of his abilities and influences that there is no sense in this concerto of history as a burden or as something to be thrown off. It is, rather, something to be approached as an equal. And while plenty of composers talk about how they have thought about the tradition when they write a new concerto, few have placed themselves in it with such breathtaking ease as Adès does here. As ever, the craft is astounding, the orchestration ceaselessly brilliant. The voice is wholly his own — dissonant, offbeat, whiplash, wry — even as it whispers to musics past… The way a phrase will end, a mood shift, brings Rachmaninoff fluttering into mind… it is [Gerstein’s] tender voicing of the cluster chords that halo the melody of the slow movement that lingers in the ears.’
The New York Times (David Allen), 8 March 2019
‘An auspicious meeting of giants… The ebbing and flowing meter, which often alternates between measures, lends the piece an organic thrum… The upward trajectory of the third movement calls for stunning agility and athleticism, and the pianist sprinted up the melodic equivalent of an infinite staircase, then slid down a banister of flat-palm clusters and cascading intervals. His hands flew toward each other, then apart, blurring until it all collapsed with a crack of the whip.’
Boston Globe (Zoë Madonna), 8 March 2019
‘Adès led the New York premiere of his new Concerto — written for Gerstein, who exhilaratingly dispatched this joyous and audacious piece’s formidable solo part… This breathless, 20-minute concerto, structured in three essentially traditional movements (fast, slow, fast), comes across as zesty and accessible. But don’t be fooled. Just below the surface, the music sizzles with modernist harmonies, fractured phrases, gaggles of counterpoint and lyrical strands that keep breaking into skittish bits. The finale is a riotous, clattering, assaultive romp. I can’t wait to hear it again.’
The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini), 21 March 2019
‘The outer movements are constantly clever, full of tricky metrical shifts and allusions to popular music of the last century. The finale was downright rollicking, though for me, the slow movement, simpler and soulful, was the highlight. But the whole score was pretty exciting, and Gerstein handled the dense piano writing with sovereign ease.’
Financial Times (John Rockwell), 21 March 2019
‘Adès has created a fabulous beast of a work, packed with ear-tickling incident, and exhibiting the kind of tightly controlled imaginative touches of a composer at the very peak of his creative powers… the work speaks palpably in Adès's highly individual voice from beginning to end, but throughout its span you sense passing reflections of the great concertos of the 20th-century… It’s also a supremely colorful work… It’s occasionally cacophonous, but its volume is always tightly controlled, the piano never lost in the swell… With soloist and orchestra on fiery form, energy levels were generally off the dial in the bookending opening and closing movements, the combination of all that tuned percussion and delightfully muted brass a jazzy riot. Whacky glissandi, wrong-footed rhythms, and harmonic slips and slides add to the fun… the slow movement with its highly “classical” recapitulation lingered in the memory as a welcome oasis of calm... The work receives its European premiere next month, and after that deserves to enter the repertoire of any pianist who can boast the necessary titanium technique.’
Musical America (Clive Paget), 22 March 2019