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Another change of costume: Thomas Adès’s wardrobe for his mini-festival “Traced Overhead” must be bulging, as this is a festival where he plays all the roles. Having already appeared as conductor, accompanist, solo pianist and more often than not composer, he turned on Tuesday to his latest part, performing as Adès the chamber musician.
The marvel is that he has hardly put a foot wrong. Perhaps as accompanist he overplayed a touch, at least for the intimate acoustics of St Luke’s Church, but back in the Barbican for this recital his contribution as pianist with members of the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin was sometimes almost too retiring.
The pianist in Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio usually likes to lead from the front, but Adès’s imaginative, atmospheric colourings in the background added an extra layer of mystery – the ghost’s presence causing a clammy chill through the subtly pedalled mists of the slow movement. There were some marvellously lambent sounds coming out of the piano part in Adès’s own Piano Quintet, too. Like Britten’s Death in Venice, soon to be performed at the Aldeburgh Festival, where Adès is artistic director, the Quintet shows how beauty can lead to chaos and so be changed beyond recognition. In the hands of the Scharoun Ensemble the music almost felt mesmerising in its elusive radiance.
Working on his Shakespearian opera The Tempest obviously left Adès with some unfinished business, as the year after he followed up with a sequence of instrumental vignettes called Court Studies from “The Tempest”. The characters who arrive on Prospero’s island are here deftly sketched in six short movements. Each is a brilliant little study that makes much of little.
The final item – Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in a chamber arrangement by Andreas N. Tarkmann – was less convincing. Simon Keenlyside sang with vivid personality, but his usually sure baritone sounded ill at ease at both high and low extremes, and Tarkmann’s arrangement was fussily over-written. Adès could tell him a thing or two about economy of means.