Adámek: Follow Me - Where are You? / Kožená, Faust, Rattle, Bavarian Radio Symphony
Born in Prague in 1979, the composer, conductor and chorus master Ondrej Adámek, who studied in his Czech hometown and in Paris, has already won numerous prestigious awards for his orchestral, chamber, vocal and electro-acoustic music. In his musical language, which also repeatedly incorporates elements of distant cultures, he creates unusual musical narratives. He seeks the authenticity of his interpretations by combining voices and movements, gestures and theatricality, phonetic and semantic aspects, and his own specially developed musical instruments. The premieres of Ondrej Adámek's "Where are You?" and "Follow me" were distinctive for their excellent casts, featuring stars such as Magdalena Kožená, Isabelle Faust and Simon Rattle. In Adámek’s "Follow me", a three-movement concerto for violin and orchestra, the melodies are divided between the soloist and the orchestra along the lines of the late medieval hocket technique, whereby the composer seeks to connect a single individual with a (human) crowd. The first performance of Adámek’s "Where are You?" for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was an outstanding event in Munich's concert programme this year. In the eleven-part, approximately 35-minute-long kaleidoscope of sound, dominated by constant motoric movement – ranging from everyday sounds such as the monotonous ticking of a clock to the sweeping, electrifyingly rhythmic pounding of the orchestra tutti – the composer embarks on a search for the human ("Where do we come from and where are we going?") and the divine.
This is music that grabs the listener by the ears and doesn’t let go. I found it completely exhilarating.
Nothing about either score included on this recording is remotely derivative or even predictable. If I were to say that it is as if Adámek had smashed up all previous music into tiny pieces and then reconstructed them into something marvellous and new, that might give the impression that he is some kind of arch post modernist. He is nothing of the sort. Almost miraculously he manages to be both uncompromisingly modernist and yet intensely communicative. Try his setting of what, in effect amounts to St Theresa’s ecstatic, religious orgasm in the seventh song of Where Are You? and what you’ll get is music that verges on the demented but which manages to be deeply spiritual and very sexy! Both scores are full of such wild, rude, exultant moments.
Follow Me is simultaneously a violin concerto and someone having a lot of fun with what a violin concerto might mean. I am not aware of another concerto that concludes with what amounts to a musical lynching of the soloist by the orchestra. One of the characteristics of Adámek’s writing is his absolute command of even the most outré material. Every note delivers an aural punch. He is of course capable of writing music of great delicacy, as in the concerto’s Bach derived slow movement but even here every note makes its point.
The opening movement features orchestral soloists echoing the opening phrases by the solo violin (the ‘follow me’ of the work’s title), phrases the composer explains in his joyous, quixotic note that were inspired by the exaggerated vibrato of a singer in Japanese Noh theatre. The orchestra, in a sense, gathers round the soloist, repeating her phrases. Isabelle Faust is at her imperious best here. This then subsides into silence before the soloist starts again with more seductive phrases. As Adámek puts it, these phrases provoke the orchestra “eventually driving them mad”. This builds and builds as the various motifs combine and recombine. The tension generated by the gradually gathering of tempo and volume is quite ferocious before Adámek pulls the rug from under the expected eruption and the movement ends with weird whistlings and scrapings out of which the slow movement evolves. A great strength of Adámek’s music is to unsettle the listener whilst keeping them on the edge of their seat.
One of the unifying techniques across all three movements of this concerto is what Adámek likens to a kind of musical ping pong where melodies are split, in alternate notes, between soloist and members of the orchestra. This effect plus an extreme elongation of material taken from Bach is most noticeable in this slow movement. It is a strange and mysterious movement that subsides into the uneasy calm from it emerged.
On a purely technical level, the finale combines all the elements of the previous two movements but that scarcely does justice to the effect it has on the listener. The shadowing of the soloist which gives the work its title is allowed finally to work its way from a hushed, fugitive opening all the way to the mighty climax that the opening movement was robbed of. As in that movement, the following of the soloist by the orchestra becomes more combative- a wry nod I think to the lion taming tradition of the 19th century virtuoso concerto – and the music, dominated by a rogue trombone, constantly threatens to swamp the soloist whose final phrases are delivered off stage before a final thrilling orchestral stampede rounds things off. Is that a tongue in cheek reference to the final sacrificial dance of the Rite of Spring I hear in this final passage? What this description may not capture is that this is all immensely diverting and colossal fun. The world of Adámek’s music may be capable of great seriousness but it never takes itself too seriously.
Follow Me is, in many ways, the curtain raiser for the even more remarkable Where Are You? My earlier comments have probably already given some indication of what it is like. Written for mezzo soprano and orchestra, it is a song cycle on spiritual themes with texts from the Bible, the Gita and the autobiography of St Theresa. None of this is handled in a conventional manner. The opening section revels in the vowel sounds of the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. A later movement sets possible Czech translations of those Aramaic words. It’s that sort of piece! The theme that unites these disparate elements is the way in which the spiritual quest for the divine however how high it can raise us comes down to earth with the question ‘Where are you?’ left unanswered. It has to be said that the piece celebrates the quest as much as it illustrates its ultimate failure and it does so with affection and good humour as well as profundity and anguish.
The vocalist is required to adopt a huge range of singing styles from breaths and rolled r’s to folk singing to outrageous coloratura. As in most of his other scores that I’ve heard, Adámek can find music in almost anything and make no mistake – this is a musical event above all else. The composer isn’t advancing some obscure musicological idea but making maddening, frenzied, bewildering, exuberant music. Ultimately, like the spiritual quest it describes, words fail to do justice to this piece. You are just going to have to listen to it.
--MusicWeb International (David McDade)
Release Date: January 21, 2022
Catalog Number: BRK900638
Label: BR Klassik
Number of Discs: 1
Composer: Ondrej Adámek
Conductor: Peter Rundel
Orchestra/Ensemble: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Magdalena Kožená