You have to hand it to Tom Ades – he knows how to subvert our expectations. His new work 'Totentanz' begins like Schoenberg at his most atonally rebarbative, and over the first twenty minutes he ratchets up the aural discomfort until the orchestra becomes convulsed in an explosion so discordant and deafening that one wishes one were somewhere else.
But then, in a series of increasingly pretty after-echoes, the collateral damage is cleared away, and we find ourselves in a cleansed and beguiling sound-world which might have been created by Mahler in one of his serenely visionary moods.
This provocative work’s musical programme has a suitably convoluted back-story. The Totentanz – dance of death – in question was a 30-metre hanging of painted cloth made in 1463 for a church in the German Baltic city of Lubeck. It was replaced by a copy in the 18th century which was subsequently destroyed in the Second World War, but a reproduction existed which became the composer’s inspiration. Words and pictures present a dialogue between Death and a succession of local grandees, each of whom has his or her reason for ignoring the fateful summons: this is a portrait of a society and its vanities. But gradually Death turns his attention to the poor and oppressed, and that becomes the cue for the work’s musically consoling volte face.
It makes huge demands on the baritone and mezzo-soprano who must carry the drama and hold their own against the percussion-heavy orchestra, but in Simon Keenlyside and Christianne Stotijn Tom Ades had struck gold: both made utterly convincing sense of their daunting melodic lines, often in grotesque duet: Keenlyside’s suggesting giant inexorability, and Stotijn’s a nightmarish torment. On the podium, Ades was able to bring out both the savagery and the beauty of his score, but I suggest that he doesn’t stop there: with a suitably Expressionist staging, this could make a very effective one-act opera.
With the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ades’s incisive baton throughout, this impressive Prom began with Britten’s 'Sinfonia da Requiem', a youthful work which gracefully married private mourning (for his parents’ deaths) and public mourning (for the victims of war). This was followed by Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto – 'Totentanz' had been dedicated to the memory of that great Polish composer and his wife – in which Paul Watkins gave a heroic rendition of the part which had originally been written for Mstislav Rostropovich.