Thomas Adès by Thomas Adès: You can’t get it any better

Ades picos

Thomas Àdes (1971) is one of my beloved contemporary composers. In contrast to many of his (older, I admit) colleagues, he writes music that is not too complicated, without it becoming a tapestry of sound. His music is exciting, stimulating, progressive and yet accessible. In one sentence, he has brought the ‘classic’ and the ‘innovative’ to each other and melted them together. In addition, he does not shy away from horror-like outbursts and even dodecaphony, which makes his music extremely visual and often terrifying.

This is also the case with Totentanz, a composition for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra based on an anonymous text from the fifteenth century, a story about the struggle between Life and Death. The latter always wins. Adès dedicated the work to Witold Lustoslawski and his wife. It was first performed at the Proms in 2013, with Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenlyside.

This recording was made live in Boston in 2016 and I can’t imagine a better performance is possible. Mark Stone (Death) and Christianne Stotijn sing their roles chilling, melancholic, provocative and resigned. Just listen to the last two parts: it’s as if Schubert and Mahler run into each other and find each other in a deadly embrace. With the dying copper sound like the exhaling of the last breath.

Adès composed his piano concerto for the Russian master pianist Kirill Gerstein, an unprecedented virtuoso who combines his romantic beat with an enormous gift for improvisation. I had to listen to it a few times because the concert does not show itself quickly. Mainly because of the many colors and ‘intermediate colors’, which means more than just nuances.

The transitions between the parts are great, so the tension makes you gasp for breath. The fact that the composer himself stands in front of the really impressive performing orchestra from Boston can only be regarded as an enormous advantage. What a CD!

English translation: Frans Wentholt

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Totentanz
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Stone (baritone)
Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Adès
DG 48379989

Marcel Worms takes care of piano works by Jewish composers

Worms pianowerkem

We can safely call Marcel Worms the ambassador of persecuted and forgotten composers. For his latest CD, he has recorded piano works by composers from various European countries: the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France and Austria. Not only the countries of origin are different, the compositions written between 1922 and 1943 also vary a lot. From jazzy and swinging through romantic, virtuoso and modest to an attempt at serialism.

The composers all have one factor in common: they were Jewish and all but three (Weinberg, Laks and Urbancic) did not survive the war. Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union, Urbancic (who was not actually Jewish but his wife and children were) to Iceland. And Laks was very lucky to survive Auschwitz, as the bandmaster of the camp orchestra.

The CD starts spectacularly with ‘Blues’ by Szymon Laks. It is unknown when this wonderful work was composed. For myself, I think of the early 1930s. Dick Kattenburg’s ‘Novolette’ from 1941 fits in perfectly with this work. As well as the very rhythmic ‘Toccata’ by Paul Hermann.

The ‘Prelude’ by Mischa Hillesum (Etty’s brother) is another story. The composition is strongly anchored in romance: never are Chopin and Rachmaninoff far away; and the two Hommage-pieces (to Sherlock Holmes and to Remmington) by Leo Smit, that you can’t actually ‘store’ anywhere, are simply delightful.

Victor Urbancic is a big unknown to me, it is the first time that I hear from him. That is not very strange: his compositions are completely forgotten and the 1922 ‘Sonatine’ has its recorded premiere here. I don’t really love it, which may be due to my unfamiliarity with his idiom.


What I really do love is the irresistible playing by the pianist. Marcel Worms plays as if his life depended on it. Full of conviction and a real pianistic zest.

Szymon Laks (1901 – 1983), Dick Kattenburg (1919 – 1944), Paul Hermann (1902 – 1944), Mischa Hillesum (1920 – 1943), Nico Richter (1915 – 1945), Erwin Schulhoff (1894 – 1942), Viktor Urbancic ( 1903-1958), Gideon Klein (1919 – 1945), Leo Smit (1900 – 1943), Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919 – 1996)
Marcel Worms, piano
Zefir Records ZEF 9669

English translation: Frans Wentholt