Friday, May 1, 2020

Thomas Ades, Works for Solo Piano, Han Chen

Thomas Ades (b. 1971) has over the past several decades been somewhat quietly but steadily establishing himself as one of England's most vital new compositional lights. I've been appreciating his chamber and orchestral works but never really encountered his treatment of the piano. All that changes with Works for Solo Piano (Naxos 8.574109), a volume of some seven interesting pieces well played by Han Chen.

The works come at us from the recent and fairly recent past, 1992-2018. My first impression on listening, which has stayed with me, was how pianistic it all is, so that we get a pianistic Ades, something a bit other compared to the orchestrational and chamber-pieces identity. Here we get a kind of registrational, touch-oriented Ades. It is most underscored, most about the notes, or so that seems to me as I listen. You might say that all solo piano music aims to registrate and touch, and that is as true with this music as any. Here Ades brightly and brilliantly succeeds where some others may not completely do so.

There is Lisztian panache in the 2009 "Concert Paraphrase," some almost Japanese sounding Dowland-lute-influenced expression with dampened strings on "Still Sorrowing" (1992) and the epically stretched and trilled impact of the companion piece "Darkness Visible." The world premiere recording of "Blanca Variations" shows us a thoughtful, pensive side, lyrically robust.You can hear a kind of Modernist post-Scriabin on "Traced Overhead" (1996).  Then there are haunting, mysterious post-Chopin explorations and playfulness on the "Mazurkas for Piano" (2009). "Souvenir" (2018) closes out the program with a kind of heartbreaking lyricism. It sounds like peak experience filtered in somewhat melancholy memory.

It's all good and it gives you a side of Ades that strongly portrays him in broad outlines and pictorial pastels. He can allow influences to show without losing sight of his own musical vision and he remains in the expressive tradition yet completely Modernist in overall impact. The music has some teeth, some bite. It challenges the player with original ornateness yet never seems to lose the center of its melodic-structural thrust.

It's a vital set of works played with obvious relish and sympathy. Anyone who lives to hear the ivory-ebony towers of sound possible in our times will no doubt find this one as fascinating as I have. Kudos to all involved!

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