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Every visit by the Berlin Philharmonic is an event – and this one doubly so, for it brought Thomas Adès’s Tevot hot from its world premiere. Adès’s first big orchestral work since Asyla 10 years ago is worth getting seriously excited about, because it shows him in complete command not just of a vast orchestra but also of symphonic form, which he manipulates in a way that communicates on many different levels: it was striking how intently the Barbican audience listened from start to finish.
Tevot packs an extraordinary amount of music into 23 minutes. As Shirley Apthorp explained on this page when reviewing last month’s performance in Berlin, the Hebrew word carries multiple allusions, principal among which is the idea of a naturally constituted structure that remains firm while moving through fluid surroundings. Adès is too much of a modernist to call his work a Symphony in One Movement, but this single hearing was enough to reveal a musical structure that moves seamlessly through various sequences of tension and release.
What it adds up to is a spellbinding Metamorphosen: it grabs the ear with tragic downward progressions and growling chorales before moving through a quasi-Caribbean jig to an eerie nocturne, which Adès spaces out, refines and sweetens until a cathartic “homecoming” tune is revealed. This crowns Tevot in poignant grandeur and leaves us not just plenty to think about but also a song to hum. Old-fashioned? No, a modern masterpiece, grounded in tradition and leading that tradition confidently forward.
This is wonderful music for an elite orchestra – Adès creates the impression of multiple orchestras at work, co-ordinated by an unseen hand – and the Berliners luxuriated in it. It was also a reminder of how attuned Rattle is to the contemporary idiom.
Tevot was uncomfortably framed by Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony and Janácek’s Sinfonietta. Rattle cast the latter as a concerto for orchestra, all parts treated equally. Thanks to the Berliners’ fabulous musicianship, he just about got away with it. As for the Dvorák, apart from some lilting portamentos in the last movement, true to the Czech style, Rattle showed how unmusical he can be in 19th-century repertoire, constantly pushing his foot down on the accelerator or slamming on the brakes, in a way that made this great orchestra sound hard and unyielding.
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