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Music Review

Fascinating facets of Adès on view with chamber players

Thomas Ades (on piano) leads the Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Jordan Hall on Sunday.Hilary Scott

Having begun his Boston Symphony Orchestra artistic partnership on Friday with a wrenching, sui generis performance of Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” with tenor Ian Bostridge, Thomas Adès returned to Jordan Hall on Sunday in the company of the orchestra’s Chamber Players. In a way, this concert offered the broadest picture of Adès’s capabilities, as it featured him in the three musical roles in which he boasts such prodigious skills: composer, conductor, and pianist.

He began by leading 10 of the orchestra’s instrumentalists in Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonietta (Op. 1). It’s an astonishing achievement for an 18-year-old composer, already displaying the resourcefulness and invention that would mark Britten’s entire career. There was some virtuosic playing in the whirling last movement, and Adès brought a keen ear for the work’s few unusual sonorities.


The pieces that followed on the first half revolved around a Shakespeare theme, beginning with Adès’s own “Court Studies From ‘The Tempest,’” a series of six brief pieces that draw on and rework music written for his 2005 opera. They are glinting snapshots of its characters and plot points, written in Adès’s inimitable and recognizable musical language. The final study, “The King’s Grief,” conjured an entire melancholy scene out of the barest fragments of material.

Brahms’s five compact “Ophelia Songs,” unpublished during his lifetime, made a rare appearance in a version by British composer John Woolrich. They were of interest mostly for the mellow, autumnal sound created by Woolrich’s arrangement for an ensemble of clarinets and strings. Stravinsky’s “Three Shakespeare Songs,” a warmup for his full embrace of serialism, created a diametrically opposed sound world: a skittish instrumental accompaniment — flute, clarinet, and viola — underpinning melodies that wander the breadth of the singer’s range. It was remarkable to compare Stravinsky’s setting of “Full fathom five” with one allegedly by Purcell, one of two arranged for voice and piano by Adès. They were the most purely beautiful music heard all afternoon. Kelley O’Connor was the fine mezzo-soprano for all the vocal works.


After intermission came Schubert’s “Trout” quintet for piano and strings, in a remarkable performance that was not the warm, easygoing run-through this beloved piece often receives. It was fascinating to hear Adès vary his touch at the piano, now brusque and insistent, now receding back into the texture, pushing listeners to hear this well-worn piece in a fresh way. A few grating moments and imprecise intonation in the strings did not lessen that impression.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players

At Jordan Hall, Oct. 30

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.