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21.11.13

'Et in Arcadia ego': Adès on Mortality

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T. Adès, Arcadiana (inter alia), Endellion Quartet
It was time last night for the first Musicians from Marlboro concert on the free concert series at the Freer Gallery of Art. Some of the most engaging performances (and their performers) are selected to be sent on tour around the country between summers, when the festival is held in Vermont. In the case of this program, featuring a piano trio and a string quartet that shared some members, it was almost certainly Arcadiana, a fascinating work for string quartet by British composer Thomas Adès, that was the reason for this program being sent on tour.

The most recent string quartet by Adès, Four Quarters from 2011, struck me as a major work when it was performed by the Arditti Quartet here last year. His first attempt in the genre, from 1994, was new to my ears in this performance, and it was perhaps more obtuse but just as fascinating to unravel. Adès has a way of eliciting unexpected sounds from instruments, often combining them in surprising ways, a talent that goes back at least as far as this work, completed when he was still in his early 20s. Glissandi and percussive barking attacks gave a growling, sometimes human vocal quality to many of the movements, with sounds like sighs in sliding pizzicato notes. He makes some outrageous demands on the players, like the flautando, ultra-high harmonics in the first violin in the second movement. This group -- violinists Scott St. John and Michelle Ross, violist Emily Deans, and cellist Matthew Zalkind -- does not perform regularly as a quartet, but the luxury of several summer weeks in Vermont made possible an astounding grasp of the work.


Adès took his title not just from Arcadia, the name of a region of Greece held up by classicizing scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries as the ideal location of a golden age of poetry. Adès references the painting by Poussin known as Et in Arcadia ego (at left), which explains much of what he is trying to do with the piece. The phrase "Et in Arcadia ego" goes back to a painting made by Guercino in 1621, and Poussin's famous variation on it in the same way shows shepherds discovering a tomb with the words as an epitaph. The meaning, as if spoken by the dead person -- or by Death itself -- is that death, too, is in Arcadia. As M. Owen Lee put it, in Death and Rebirth in Virgil's Arcadia: "Even in the enclosure where all is supposedly timeless happiness, death is present." Adès seemed to evoke this idea by quoting music -- a section of Mozart's Magic Flute, a Schubert song, Elgar's Nimrod variation -- well, really, processing more than quoting, as it often seemed to have gone through a food processor and was now a sort of sonic purée. For all of its quizzical effect, one was left with a feeling of nostalgia, as if to say that death has claimed all those composers, too, and perhaps even their music, one day, will ultimately die.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Music From Marlboro program returns to Freer Gallery (Washington Post, November 22)
The other three pieces on the program were far less extraordinary, both in terms of the music and the performance -- still pleasant, but there were no other real delights until the encore, which brought together all five musicians for the Scherzo movement of Dvořák's piano quintet. Beethoven's Variations for Piano Trio on Wenzel Müller's dippy song Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu, op. 121a, was a reminder of Beethoven's fondness for weaving great things from the humblest of fabric. Fauré's D minor piano trio (op. 120), completed in the year before the composer died, has pretty moments but is episodic and more than a little saccharine, especially given that it was composed almost a decade after Rite of Spring. Its third movement uses a short motif that is an (unintended?) quotation of the words "Ridi, Pagliaccio!" from Vesti la giubba, the famous aria in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. In Mendelssohn's E minor string quartet (op. 44/2), all four musicians produced a beautiful tone and played with energy, if not always a taut sense of ensemble, but the result still felt a little sterile.

The other two Musicians from Marlboro concerts at the Freer are planned for the spring, on April 10 and May 10, 2014.

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