How to give Mahler a run for his money

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Thomas Ades Premiere

CBSO/Simon Rattle, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Even a casual reader may have grasped that Thomas Ades - still only 26 - is a fast-rising force in British music. Hot on the heels of a lauded EMI disc, a Proms airing for his Living Toys and the triumphant US debut, under his own baton, of his parody opera Powder Her Face, Wednesday night saw the world premiere, under Simon Rattle and the CBSO, of Asyla, his largest orchestral score to date.

Though its title suggests both safe, enclosing spaces and the nastier idea of restriction or confinement, this substantial piece, some 22 minutes long, stands well on its own, without any specified programme. Its four sections, with sand- wiched slow movement and scherzo, lend it an outward feel of symphonic form; more importantly, programming it beside Mahler's Third enabled Ades to use similarly vast forces, including much percussion and two players spanning three keyboards: celesta and two pianos, one of which (an upright) is tuned a quarter-tone flat.

Curious quartertones could have much to do with the mysterious and disconcerting sounds Ades calls forth. The cowbells (Mahler again?), whose spare arpeggios (with divisi violas) open the work, instantly set up a kind of harmonically out-of-synch eeriness (as in Britten's Death in Venice) that permeates much of the piece. Hence the unpleasant, slithering brass interruptions and curious phantasms of some unseen dance later in the first movement; the spaced-out textures (contrabassoon, tuba, cor anglais, or flute, alto flute and oboes) of the leisurely slow movement; or the rasping woodwind that takes up from a kind of hocket-like "ticking clock" launch to the "ecstatic" scherzo. This last, wherein the folky Haydnesque model is replaced by a modern "pop"-related substitute, grows into a kind of jazzy Bolero, twisting large sections of the orchestra into an eerie oriental banjo. Dislocation features again in an exposed passage for distorted piano partway through the finale, whose opening sounds like the sloughing off of a bad head- ache following some Vivaldian harvest tipple.

The sense of long line, evident in a horn-led melody early in the first movement, features again in a striking bass oboe solo in the slow movement. Likewise, Ades's talent for exclamatory brass or woodwind gestures that summarily "cancel" what precedes works to striking effect in several movements; surely above all in the astounding Mahlerian triple fortissimo utterance that presages the piece's close.

Roderic Dunnett

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