Proms diary: Britten, Lutosławski and Thomas Adès's Totentanz

Helen Wallace is swept away by an inspiring evening at the Proms and a richly rewarding Thomas Adès world premiere

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Thomas AdèsThomas Adès led the BBC Symphony Orchestra through two dances of death last night, by Britten and Lutosławksi, culminating in his own remarkable Totentanz. It was an inspired programme which had the startling effect of unifying three utterly different musical voices.

The dance made its first appearance in Britten’s sombre Sinfonia da Requiem, whose Dies Irae scherzo erupts in flutter tonguing and sharp, sarcastic trumpets. Adès (left) has never hidden his scorn for Britten’s music, but this coruscating reading – one of the best I’ve ever heard -  revealed a respect for the composer’s raw, early orchestral work. He masterfully nudged the Lachrymosa into being, allowing it to grow with each insistent figure until it achieved vast monumentality. Incisive direction made for a biting Dies Irae, with its hauntingly strange saxophone solo leading to violent break-up. Cello arpeggios rose like vaporous prayers in the luminous D major Requiem aeternum.

The very same note opened Lutosławski’s defiant Cello Concerto (1970), this time played by soloist Paul Watkins with disarming indifference (as marked).  In this starkly dramatic work the cellist is pitted against orchestral forces in what, too, becomes a dance of death, the cello hunted down into sobbing exhaustion. Watkins is an elite instrumentalist who is free to revel in such a complex role; together he and the orchestra articulated their fraught dialogue with such rhythmic verve one could almost imagine the words. After the soloist’s five minute opening the trumpets' impertinent interruption struck a note of high comedy, while the lamenting Cantilena for which the strings swarm around the soloist was powerfully moving. His encore, Lutosławski’s delicate Sacher Variation for solo cello, continued the conversation in intimate style.

It was in memory of Lutosławski that Adès was commissioned to write a new orchestral work. The result, Totentanz, is a cycle of songs taken from a 15th-century frieze in a Lübeck church in which Death calls on those from all levels of society to join his dance. It hurls us into a labyrinth the senior composer would recognise, but which is darker and more manically brutal than anything even he conceived. Baritone Simon Keenlyside and mezzo-soprano Christiane Stotijn, who sung the parts of Death and his victims with searing eloquence, needed amplification in the face of a vast orchestra and battery of percussion crowned by a taiko drum the size of a house. We’re in the world of Adès's orchestral work Tevot, but with a narrative of overpowering momentum.

The menacing score thunders forward like a force of nature, whip-cracks ricocheting off its surface, intensity building to claustrophobic levels as Death commands his victims: Emperor, Pope, Cardinal and King are scythed down until we reach the Monk; a gong stops play and in the stillness a bell tolls, the Monk laments his fate. Next comes the Knight with riding rhythms, snare drum, and a burst of Mahlerian military band; the tension ratchets up again and Mayor, Doctor, Usurer are dismissed, while a gleaming duet builds around the Merchant to a terrifying crisis. Tension is released in thinning textures as we enter the supposedly innocent world of the lower orders, celeste and strings accompany the Parish clerk, swinging horns and drum celebrate the release of the Peasant. Is Death singing a curdled love song to the Maiden, becalmed on his sinister line: ‘Girls don’t usually turn down a little dance’.

The shock arrives with the child: celestial trumpets which, in Britten’s work herald peaceful resurrection, here announce the passing of one who must dance before he can walk. We seem to have arrived in a scene from Mahler’s Das Wunderhorn and for a disorientating moment one can almost smell a sentimental ending. But Adès draws back, offering instead the child’s stark, lonely appeal, consumed by an unheeding Death. It’s a work of rich, operatic moment, pure Adès but seen through the dark glass of 19th century German Romanticism.

Listen to this Prom on BBC iPlayer for the next seven days. To find out more about this year's BBC Proms, visit the festival website.

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