Prom 8: AdËs’ Totentanz

A tightly controlled and startlingly vehement rendition of Britten’s
Sinfonia da Requiem opened the Prom, AdËs pacing and crafting the
three movements in a reading of the score which made a more than usually
convincing case for the work. With clarity and precision, the conductor
revealed extremes of colour, texture and weight. An intimate but disconsolate
‘Lachrymose’, was followed by a cynical, fleet-footed ‘Dies Irae’, the
flute flutter-tonguing pounded by the mocking onslaught of the percussion. The
conclusion of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ was beautifully affecting, as AdËs
found both serenity and sorrow in the return of the fragmented plainchant with
which the work begins.

A similar disturbing combination of anguish and restraint characterised Paul
Watkin’s magnificent performance of Lutoslawki’s Cello Concerto. From the
quiet, monotonous pulses of the long cello solo which commences the work,
Watkins kept the undoubtedly powerful emotional resonances of the work on a
tight rein, only occasionally allowing the latent ‘suffering’ expressed in
Lutoslawski’s intangible musical narrative to be released. Harmonics and
glissandi were delicately transparent; strident pizzicato passages were
delivered with directness and authority. AdËs too focused more on the
score’s detailed colourings than on its dynamic heaviness, allowing the cello
to be an equal partner with the full orchestral forces, never struggle to
articulate. The third movement cantilena was exquisitely lyrical but offered
only a temporary repose before the furious rhythmic energy of the final
movement welled up, driving the work to its wild conclusion.

In the second half of the programme, AdËs conducted the world premiere of
his own Totentanz, commissioned by Robin Boyle in memory of
Lutoslawski and his wife, Danuta.

AdËs’ musical portrait of a ‘Dance of Death’ draws its inspiration
from a visual source: a 30-metre-long painted hanging, made in 1463 for the
church of St Mary in the German Baltic city of L¸beck, which depicts Death
linking hands with a cross-section of individuals, addressing each with his
message of unavoidable doom.

In Totentanz, Death, a baritone (Simon Keenlyside) invites in turn
a succession of human representatives – including Pope, Emperor, Cardinal,
King, Monk, Usurer, Merchant and Parish Clerk – to join his inescapable and
deadly dervish, delighting that, ‘When I come, great and small,/ no grieving
helps you’. A soprano (Christianne Stotijn) adopts the diverse mortal roles,
voicing their resignedly acquiescent replies as they cast off their worldly
garb and accept their earth-bound fate. But Death is indifferent to their
mortal weakness, ignoring their pitiful laments and turning disdainfully to the
next recipient of his solicitation. In this way, AdËs avoids a static
interplay of invitation and response, creating a tense dialogue and a whirling,
accumulating momentum which sucks us into a vortex of unstoppable energy.

At the start, the Preacher invites rich and poor, young and old, to ‘come
to see the play’, and the work does have an inherently theatrical quality.
AdËs asks a great deal of his ‘players’, and the two vocal soloists rose
to the challenges negotiating, singly and in duet, the angular, wide-ranging
melodies with supreme assurance (although they were amplified – one wonders
whether they could have risen above the panoply of percussive pounding without
it, or conveyed the text so crisply).

Stotijn found a remarkable range of colours and moods to convey the various
human ‘voices’, complemented by an ever-changing orchestral landscape –
for example, lyrical gesturing from the violins accompanies the Pope’s
submission, while the Cardinal’s mellifluous pleading is complemented by the
high timbre of the flute juxtaposed with a grumbling bass. And, the composer
avoids repetitiveness by varying Death’s proposition each time. Thus,
Death’s proposals – sung with seductive charm by Keenleyside, mingled with
imperious contempt – ‘duet’ with a range of instruments and groupings;
trembling double bass as he addresses the Emperor, a repetitive pattern played
by the celli when his words are directed at the King, a dialogue with trombones
as the Monk is called to the dance.

AdËs’ timbral invention, his ability to find new, astonishing orchestral
colours, should not surprise. One thinks of the piano’s ethereal trembling in
Darknesse Visible, or the startling bass oboe melody in
Asyla, the latter also making use of cowbells and quarter-tone-flat
piano. Here he calls upon an eight-strong percussion team to paint a
kaleidoscopic canvas.

From the opening screeches of the piccolo, the astringent harmony,
asymmetrical rhythms and percussive outbursts establish the grim reality which
inevitably erodes and destroys human aspiration. As the dance proceeds across
an increasingly wide harmonic and timbral expanse, an unstoppable accretion of
dissonance builds up – almost painfully – culminating in an orchestral
apocalypse, like a sonic black hole of terrifying magnificence and appalling

Then, when our capacity for aural assault is totally depleted, the
catastrophic silence is gently broken by more tender strains; as Death turns to
the lower echelons of the social hierarchy, a gentler, more sentimental mood
ensues. The Parish Clerk’s pianissimo melody is hauntingly beautiful and
sorrowful. Following the Handworker, Peasant and Maiden, the Child is Death’s
last ‘victim’, but now the invitation is more comforting, ‘Til the last
day, sleep now: sleep on, consoled’. With the Child’s poignant, unsettling
response, ‘O Death, how can I understand?/ I cannot walk, yet I must
dance!’, the score hints at a cleansing, major tonality, the harmony and
sound-world intimating a quasi-Mahlerian transfiguration. Ultimately the music
slips into darkness, the dark, sunken tones of timpani and tuba recalling the
spirit of the conclusion of the ‘requiem’ which opened the concert and, to
this listener at least, the call of the sea which invites Peter Grimes and
Aschenbach to their respective deaths.

In a NYT article, Richard Taruskin praised AdËs’ ‘precocious technical
sophistication and [an] omnivorous range of references’. In
Totentatz these qualities are startlingly evident: the soundscape
blends the new and the familiar in a score which first challenges the listener
with its visceral impact – inflicting a savage aural and emotional battering
– and then salves with bitter-sweet harmonic succour. Despite its emotional
directness, the work retains an intriguing, enticing ambiguity.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available for a further five days on BBC Radio 3 online
; it will be broadcast on BBC 4 on 28th July.

Production and cast information:

Britten, Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20; Lutoslawski, Cello Concerto;
AdËs, Totentanz; Paul Watkins, cello; Christianne Dtotijn,
mezzo-soprano; Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Thomas AdËs, conductor; BBC
Symphony Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, Wednesday, 17th July

image_description=Thomas AdËs at the Proms [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]
product_title=Prom 8: AdËs’ Totentanz
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Thomas AdËs at the Proms [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]