BBC Proms reviews of Adès's 'Totentanz'

BBC Proms reviews of Adès's 'Totentanz'
Before its premiere, Thomas Adès’s Totentanz was widely tipped to be one of the Proms highlights; it undoubtedly lived up to this, and more! With its jaw-dropping orchestral sonorities, its wild, whirling dances, its moments of crystalline stillness and with a battery of percussion ready to stab you in the gut, this Prom will live long in the memory. At every turn in this unusual narrative, Death was waiting with a cruel smile and beckoning finger.
The 45-minute work is based on a 15th century German frieze depicting every category of human society in strictly descending order of status, from the Pope to a baby. In-between each human figure is an image of Death, dancing and inviting the humans to join him. In Adès’s setting Death, a baritone – here Simon Keenlyside – invites his victims to join him in his macabre dance, their pleading reactions – sung in each case by mezzo Christine Stoijn – are met with an unrelenting orchestral force that sums up the futility of their situation.
Totentanz was a commission from Robin Boyle in memory of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) and his wife, Danuta.
'Surely this will be one Proms premiere with a real afterlife'
‘It was only a matter of time before Adès, British music’s Lord of the Dance, wrote a Totentanz, and the result achieves all the macabre giddiness you might expect, liberally laced with fragments of the Dies Irae planchaint. Encounters start off straightforward enough with Emperor and Cardinal, but as patterns repeat and multiply the emotional weight builds, eventually climaxing in a moment of rhythmic rejection in the still beauty of the Parish Clerk’s music.This shock is nothing, however, compared to that of a quasi-Mahlerian finale. Death, so matter-of-fact with the officials, is drawn into something closer to a liebestod with the Maiden and finally the Child, with scatter-gun pitches suddenly coalescing into thick harmonies. It’s a coup de theatre that reverses expectations, not piercing onwards to the bone beneath the skin but retreating to the fleshy fantasy of human life... Totentanz is a major work, and one that has a natural place in the repertoire alongside the big orchestral song cycles and symphonies of the late German Romantics. Surely this will be one Proms premiere with a real afterlife.’
The Arts desk (Alexandra Coghlan), 18 July 2013

'Adès's most frankly expressive music to date'
‘In Adès's piece the baritone is death's mouthpiece - declamatory, angular and rather Bergian, while the mezzo, more lyrical, more vulnerable, represents the victims who vainly try to resist him. Throughout their exchanges the orchestral machine moves relentlessly on, constantly changing tack and inventing new sound-worlds but always keeping its power in reserve, and consuming everything it encounters. In the closing pages death and humanity seem to reach a truce in a passage of almost Straussian lyricism, Adès's most frankly expressive music to date, but it proves only temporary and the work ends in the lowest depths of the orchestra, having worked its way downwards. The performance was wonderfully compelling…’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 18 July 2013

'This seemed a cultural event of the first magnitude'
‘This carnival of horror seemed just right for Adès. His music aspires to a condition of near-hysterical intensity, expressed through mad hyper-complexity or glacial stillness... [in this piece] Adès did something new by marrying that hyper-real intensity to a huge variety of emotional tone. This was apt: we were seeing every human type pass before us. We heard rustic horns for the farmer, an ironic waltz for the monk, a military drum for the knight, and at the end a pair of heavenly Mahlerian trumpets for the child, sadly bewildered that he must dance before he can walk. This was hugely risky, and it’s a measure of Adès’s perfect tact that sentimentality never threatened. In all it was an immense achievement... This seemed a cultural event of the first magnitude.’ 
The Telegraph (Ivan Hewett), 18 July 2013

'with a suitably Expressionist staging, this could make a very effective one-act opera'
‘You have to hand it to Adès – he knows how to subvert our expectations. His new work 'Totentanz' begins like Schoenberg at his most atonally rebarbative, and over the first twenty minutes he ratchets up the aural discomfort until the orchestra becomes convulsed in an explosion so discordant and deafening that one wishes one were somewhere else. But then, in a series of increasingly pretty after-echoes, the collateral damage is cleared away, and we find ourselves in a cleansed and beguiling sound-world which might have been created by Mahler in one of his serenely visionary moods... On the podium, Adès was able to bring out both the savagery and the beauty of his score, but I suggest that he doesn’t stop there: with a suitably Expressionist staging, this could make a very effective one-act opera.’
The Independent (Michael Church), 18 July 2013

'I found it thrilling: one of his best'
‘…one of the best concerts of the year… Adès’s own new piece… Until its unnervingly tonal ending, when the world’s vanities seem to slither into an eerie Mahlerian lullaby, Adès’s score is mostly brutal, exploiting screeching high sonorities or grunting low ones, with a crippled, lurching momentum. That makes it sound unpleasant. Yet I found it thrilling: one of his best.’
The Times (Richard Morrison), 19 July 2013 

'unfaltering dramatic instinct'
‘Adès, with unfaltering dramatic instinct, has seized on the piece's dark playfulness, taking the satisfying decision to have the living victims sung by a single woman (the fine mezzo Christianne Stotijn) and death by a man (superb baritone Simon Keenlyside). What is most striking is how frightening the music is, the entire orchestra in uproar, fighting for its life.’
The Observer (Kate Kellaway), 21 July 2013