Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas Adès‘ Totentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano & baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden & even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate & enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, & it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn & Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Despite the text being so sectional, Adès has for the most part resisted making Totentanz a heavily compartmentalised set of episodes. This is helped by the fact that, although the mezzo expresses a multitude of characters, the gist of each conversation is broadly similar, involving terror at the proximity of death, concomitant introspection & sometimes repentance, although several of the characters opt for a less intimidated response. Adès has clearly relished the prospect of exploring this subject, & the music he composes around the figure of Death is among the most vivid & powerfully immediate of his entire output. From the outset, Death is heralded with trumpets, while his words—articulated with strong but supple lines, the vocal equivalent of a bodybuilder posing—are rendered fittingly superhuman through piledriver orchestral textures. The most emphatic variations of colour come with the alternating guises taken on by the mezzo, many of which are genuinely odd; at her first entry, she is surrounded by strange, sliding strings, not so much supporting as plaguing her. They do afford a certain amount of sympathy to the characters’ plight—an episode with high violins & celesta around halfway through leads into the palest section, allowing the mezzo to become soft & delicate, even a little sultry. But Adès emphasises most the knife-edge tension that pervades these conversations, pushing the soloists beyond all extremes of lyricism, the mezzo becoming practically hysterical on numerous occasions; at her most unhinged, the melodic line all over the place, Christianne Stotijn enunciates the music in a perfectly-judged tone that sounds overwhelmingly forced & uncomfortable. For his part, the baritone, buoyed up on clattering interludes & uproarious oom-pah parades, is like a crazed ringmaster, marshalling the orchestral forces & steering each conversation with unsettlingly effortless ease.
Half an hour has rarely sounded so utterly operatic as this. There are the familiar echoes of Berg that have enriched his earlier scores, the penchant for lines that move steadily up or down, the incongruous lurches into broken appropriations of style, but as a whole i’m tempted to say that this new work is the most thrilling & individual music Adès has composed in a number of years. Totentanz makes a very deep impression, comical, thought-provoking, disturbing & overwhelming in equal measure. Early days, of course, but it seems to have ‘masterpiece’ written all over it.
Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)
Thomas Adès – Totentanz
- Loved it! (63%, 38 Votes)
- Liked it (18%, 11 Votes)
- Meh (12%, 7 Votes)
- Disliked it (3%, 2 Votes)
- Hated it! (3%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 60