Up the mountain, through the fields, into town

Wheat field with cypresses, painted in 1889 by van Gogh

The shimmering air on a summer afternoon – a physical phenomenon that astonishes me time and again. Air is transparent per se and still you can see it when it ascends, being heated and becoming less dense than the air around it. I had to think of it when I listened to “Les eaux” (The Waters), the first movement of Thomas Adès’ piece of chamber music “Lieux retrouvés” (Places rediscovered). It refers to the flow of water, horizontal, vertical, patterns easily disturbed, leading to turbulence, interferences – the rippling of a water surface caused by wind, a dropped stone. The geometry behind this has fascinated many a composer – we have already found that in the music of Franz Schubert and Maurice Ravel.

The second movement of Adès’ composition is called “La montagne” (The Mountain). An  ascending movement, like a giant stepping up a staircase. As for that lighter theme – the composer himself on the piano – perhaps a source, water flowing over a bed of rocks? Some equate it with the rarefied air at the summit. Moving on to “Les champs” (The Fields) then. A pastoral melody for the cello, played by Steven Isserlis, very calm, peaceful, harmonic, an element of tension – you have to listen very closely to detect the nuances, the subtle elements like that breeze. Madness, decadence and I-have-no-time! The last movement takes us downtown with all that makes city life unpleasant: La ville (Cancan macabre).

Arnold Whittall explains the piece on behalf of Adès’ publisher, Faber Music: “That all four movements involve rediscovery could indicate connections with the composer’s earlier evocation of French painters and composers – especially Couperin.  But there is also a sense of renewing acquaintance with contemporary techniques, as set out in the flowing pattern-making at the start of ‘Les eaux’, from which a complex counterpoint with intense cross-rhythms emerges that reinforces the inseparability of dramatic and lyrical in Adès’s style […] The gradual disappearance of ‘Les Champs’ into the highest registers of both instruments, without a sudden cadential cut-off, hints at the allusive, troubled idylls of Adès’s earlier evocations of [Adès piece string quartet] Arcadiana […] and ‘La ville’’ sits well alongside the manic dance routines of Arcadiana’stango mortale’.”

Adès, born in 1971, wrote this piece in 2009; it was co-commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival, Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall. Its premiere took place on June 21, 2009 at the Aldeburgh Festival. He has established himself as one of Great Britain’s best known composers of contemporary classical music. Whittall says Adès “delight[s] in creating and sustaining tension through the accumulation of distinct, elaborately patterned layers of texture”. That sums it up. This music may sound initially somewhat awkward, but actually it’s quite fun. Thomas Adès and Steven Isserlis have recorded this piece together with works of Kurtag, Pohadka and Fauré.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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