Thomas Adès has now written four stage works, and subsequently fashioned pieces for the concert hall from each. His programme with the London Philharmonic included the most recent of those scores, the Inferno Suite and the Tempest Symphony, the latter receiving its British premiere.
It took 18 years after the Covent Garden premiere of his opera based on Shakespeare’s late play for Adès to extract his Tempest Symphony from it. Vocal lines are re-assigned to instruments – high woodwind takes over Ariel’s giddy coloratura, for instance, Prospero is sometimes a horn, more often a cello. The five movements begin with the opera’s tumultuous overture and end with the long, slow fade with which Prospero bids his final farewell; scenes for Ariel and Prospero, the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, and the depiction of the feast that Ariel conjures up for the survivors of the shipwreck (including a gorgeous tuba solo for Gonzalo’s aria) come in between. It’s a shapely precis, flecked with glistening instrumental colours, and a welcome memento of what is Adès’s finest stage work to date.
The Inferno Suite involved much blunter surgery, for, as the title signals, it’s derived entirely from the first part of The Dante Project, the full-length ballet first seen in 2021. Skipping a few depictions of the inhabitants of the nine circles of hell brings together eight sections of the score, which often seem more like pastiche than anything else. There’s a Tchaikovsky-like effusion for the corrupt popes, an Offenbachian gallop for the thieves devoured by snakes, even a pavane with hints of Vaughan Williams’s Job for the souls in limbo, so that Adès’s own musical personality often seems well-hidden.
Framing these scores were works linked thematically to them. The incidental music that Sibelius composed for a staging of The Tempest in 1926 was one of his last full-scale works; the LPO played the overture and the first of the two suites fashioned from it, though the little character pieces only rarely evoke the great symphonic composer. But Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy after Dante” Francesca da Rimini made a rip-roaring end to the concert, the orchestra at full throttle, and Adès steadily ratcheting up the excitement.