A few weeks back in this year’s Proms season, Sally Beamish’s Hive gave the impression that the occasion was aimed at children, and it was much the same listening to Thomas Adès‘ Märchentänze, given its UK première last Friday. Adès is such a strangely unpredictable composer, capable of extremes of brilliance and bullshit in equal measure, often in the same piece. Märchentänze doesn’t remotely approach either of those extremes – in hindsight, would that it did – but charts a thoroughly safe, simple journey through a quartet of short, folk-inspired movements. The work is essentially a kind of miniature symphony for violin and orchestra, structured with lively first and last movements, a slow second, and a third movement that can easily be heard as a kind of expanded scherzo.
Yet again this season i’m compelled to say that it’s the lively music that comes off worst. Is it playful, or is it merely trivial? Adès has always been drawn to mucking about with existing musical ideas, and the first movement seems to do little more than indulge his penchant for presenting a tonally clear melody and festooning it with wrong notes and oblique harmonies. Anyone familiar with the excellent Steeleye Span rendition of ‘The Two Magicians’ will certainly recognise it here, though Adès’ attempt to make it funny seems workaday at best; it’s only surprising the registrally-polarised conclusion didn’t end with a full-blown raspberry, in the manner of Ives’ Second Symphony. Or perhaps that would be the most appropriate response from the audience. (Incidentally, it’s interesting to contemplate Adès’ description of this song – which describes what amounts to a life-long predatory pursuit, where one of the magicians (a man) is obsessively determined to rape the other (a virgin woman) – as “the immemorial generative dance of the sexes”. Hmm.)
For all its mundanity, it’s more engaging than the final movement, the most blathery dance you’ve ever likely heard, though it does at least become mildly interesting when Adès breaks it all apart halfway through; the process of building itself back up, littered with glissandi, is rather nice. The slow, lyrical second movement is heavily redolent of Adès’ inert, pastiche score for the otherwise excellent 2018 film Colette; it, too, becomes briefly interesting in its latter stages when a switch to pizzicato seems to befuddle everything, losing the clarity of both melody and accompaniment.
It’s therefore not really saying much to proclaim the third movement, titled ‘A Skylark for Jane’, the most successful. It is, but only because of its harnessing of a host of individual lines that become channelled into a sonic murmuration of sorts. Adès is hardly the first composer to create music like this, but it is at least a welcome break from the kind of absent-minded, churned-out-in-an-afternoon doggerel comprising the rest of the work.
Honestly, critiquing a piece like this feels like telling a child their painting is crap. Which probably tells you everything you need to know about Märchentänze. Though flimsy, disposable, superficial and forgettable, it is, ultimately, completely harmless. But it is crap.
The UK première of Märchentänze was given by violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon.
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I composed these four Märchentänze (“dances from fairytale”) in 2020, originally for violin and piano, then a year later made this orchestral version. The first movement is a fantasy on the folk song Two Magicians, immortalised by Steeleye Span, about the immemorial generative dance of the sexes. A hushed movement follows, the chant-like tune presented as a round. The third movement, A Skylark for Jane, is an outpouring of birdsong, each individual orchestra member freely echoing the soloist to create an “exaltation” of skylarks. The final dance begins with an energetic elfin theme, and grows into a writhing dance. Many themes grapple, twining around each other like otters, towards a decisive conclusion.