If a leading composer creates a substantial new work, the music world sits up and listens. But when the work turns out to be a grisly dance of death, the experience can have a disconcerting effect. Isn’t music supposed to be uplifting?
Not if we are to judge from Totentanz, Thomas Adès’s 35-minute dramatic cantata, of which the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance at the Proms on Wednesday, with soloists Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenlyside. Adès’s biggest concert work to date, Totentanz adds up to a forbidding celebration of our mortality, with the figure of Death brought terrifyingly to life, and each of his targets – a selection of humanity, including a Pope, a mayor, a maiden and a child – reduced to helpless victims.
Given that Adès’s platform persona has a slightly devilish quality, from his black couture to the wild choreography of his gestures, there was something chilling about this performance. Totentanz is not pretty but it exerts a lurid fascination – as if its composer has broken a taboo, by alerting us to our own demise.
Adès’s inspiration came from a 30m-long medieval cloth made for a church in the German city of Lübeck, depicting Death linking hands with all levels of society and addressing them in words displayed in captions. Judging by the copy reproduced in the Proms programme, you can see why it engaged Adès’s imagination: the skeletal figure of Death seems to be enjoying himself. Adès gives this role to a baritone, all see-sawing Sprechgesang (speech-song), and calls upon his mezzo soloist to sing, quite dispassionately, for each of the victims.
It is the orchestra that adds the chill factor. Treating his enormous instrumental apparatus like a witch’s brew, with snake rattles and animal bones specified in the score, Adès awards shrill shrieks to the woodwinds, sadistic thwacks to all manner of percussion and baleful growls to the brass, before letting the entire orchestra sound off in an unscripted section at the work’s heart. The Monk’s episode is prefaced by an up-tempo hallucinatory dance, the Knight’s by a diabolical waltz and the duet-finale by a strange, not-quite-Mahlerian funeral march, before the lowest instruments grind the music down into nothing.
Totentanz is heavily Germanic, with frequent echoes of Berg and, perversely, a brief blast of Straussian tonality at the end. If such moments suggest a derivative touch, it’s hard to fault the scale of the piece, which has an inexorable sweep. It received a stunning performance, despite fuzzy amplification of the two soloists.
The transient nature of our earthly existence provided a theme for the entire concert. It opened with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, which in Adès’s hands achieved a scary intensity, and continued with Paul Watkins’ thoughtful rendition of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, a barely disguised allegory of individual aspiration and political repression. This was not a concert for the faint-hearted.