Halloween might be over, but the program that British composer and conductor Thomas Adès led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Thursday at Symphony Hall was still preoccupied with death and the hereafter. Benjamin Britten’s early “Sinfonia da Requiem” was followed by Jean Sibelius’s forest-shrouded late tone poem “Tapiola” and then, after intermission, the Boston premiere of Adès’s own “Totentanz.” It was a high-decibel evening, and Adès had a lot to say.
Practically brand new, having debuted at the BBC Proms in 2013, “Totentanz” was commissioned in memory of Witold Lutoslawski and his wife, Danuta. The work took as its starting point a 15th-century frieze from the Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany, that depicted (it was destroyed in World War II) a skeletal Death dancing with the ranks of medieval society, from the Pope to an infant. Adès used the text accompanying the frieze, setting his piece for baritone (who represents Death), mezzo-soprano (all the human roles), and an orchestra whose percussion section calls for whips, tam-tams, anvils, bamboo canes, whistles, and a 60-inch Taiko drum.
The vocal soloists at Symphony Hall were Christianne Stotijn, who sang the London world premiere, and Mark Stone, who sang the American premiere in New York last year. Stotijn in particular had some difficulty being heard over the raucous percussion section. Once the texture thinned out, after a cacophonous interlude halfway through the 34-minute piece, she was poignant as the Parish Clerk and persuasively repentant as the Handworker. Stone’s Death was as implacable as he was powerful.
The first half of “Totentanz” is grimly monochromatic, as, apart from a kind word for the Cardinal, the upper ranks of society are dismissed in quick succession. Matters improve after the interlude: Death appreciates the Peasant’s “honest effort,” and he’s almost apologetic about gathering in the Maiden and the Child, with whom he sings ravishing duets. No one ascends to Heaven; rather the piece slowly descends to the lowest depths of the orchestra, the singers intoning the word “tanzen” over and over: “Dance, dance, dance.”
Britten composed the “Sinfonia da Requiem” in 1940 on commission from a “great power.” Japan, it turned out, was commissioning works to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of its empire, and it rejected Britten’s somber, antiwar composition. The piece’s three sections proceed without a break. The “Lacrymosa,” in 6/8 time, dances mournfully; the “Dies irae” gallops, as if the Day of Wrath were getting closer by the second; the “Requiem aeternam” has a middle section from the strings that rises hopefully, but there’s no affirmation at the end, only the flutes’ plea for eternal rest. Adès’s performance was a little more expansive than the one he led at the BBC Proms in 2013. The timpani was thunderous, the winds had character, the saxophone was seductive, and in the “Requiem aeternam” he evoked an unearthly calm. The closing bars did their own dance with Death, a slow waltz.
Sibelius’s “Tapiola” was also a commission, from Walter Damrosch for the New York Symphony Society in 1926. Tapio is a forest spirit who appears throughout the Finnish epic poem the “Kalevala”; the work’s title means “Tapio’s Realm.” This too was quite loud, and the opening motif, which seems suspended in mist, was very forthright. Harsh sunshine flooded what followed, and at times the flow seemed disjointed. Still, Adès conveyed the tension and release of the piece, the sense of being watched. And the gale that starts off the coda, after Tapio’s second crashing cameo, was a whirlwind. “Tapiola” ends in halcyon benediction; Adès made that seem like the calm before the next storm.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday Nov. 3 (repeats Nov. 4-5). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.