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Review: Thomas Ades: Contemporary Horizons, CBSO, at Symphony Hall

Christopher Morley reviews Thomas Ades: Contemporary Horizons, CBSO, at Birmingham's Symphony Hall.

In my book, the last contemporary piano concertos to add anything worthwhile to the canon were those by Tippett and Shostakovitch. What we heard in Wednesday's courageous programme from the CBSO (Symphony Hall was only a third full) were two pretty, up-to-the-minute examples of the genre, but I do wonder if they'll become staples of the repertoire.

Gerald Barry's Piano Concerto, a CBSO co-commission with Bavarian Radio, was here receiving its UK premiere, and was devotedly delivered by soloist Nicolas Hodges under the generous baton of Thomas Ades. It's a piece full of circus panache, everyone showing off their party-tricks. There's a sense of mutual collaboration, but the piano remains an angry clown.

The wistful cheekiness of Poulenc frequently comes to mind, and there are so many other references and ear-memories which Barry has brilliantly assimilated in so much coruscating scoring. But there were details in the programme-notes which passed me by.

Hodges then turned to the clattering tintinnabulations  of Francisco Coll's Piano Concertino "No sere yo quien diga nada" ('I'm not saying nothing'). Personally I'd get rid of the double negative, as the piece says nothing to me at all. Dynamics are exaggerated and fail to tell, the importantly-scored accompanying harpsichord part is in fact a wan presence, and the continued use of the piano's highest registers is scarcely as resourceful as Beethoven's, two centuries ago.

Best I can say is that the performance came over with the clarity of Mozart.

Ades began his programme with Ravel's Mother Goose ballet, beautifully shaped and glowing, concertmaster Laurence Jackson touchingly communicative in all registers, double-basses wonderfully grunting under Ades' fluid, flickering baton.

But best of all was Ades' own Tevot, scored for a huge orchestra (seven percussionists, no less), resonances of Mahler and Holst, and its textures and sonorities scything with accents. It ends with warm triumph, like Roy Harris' Third Symphony of nearly a century ago. This was the only piece in this programme I'd genuinely welcome hearing again.

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