Thomas Adès – Sonata da Caccia (1993)

Playlist: Thomas Adès – Sonata da Caccia

Thomas Adès is one of the darlings of British music. His name frequently appears in lists extolling living composers, especially if the list is published in English. By the time he was in his early twenties, his skills both as a pianist and as a composer had attracted the notice of major figures, and in 1997 (when Adès was twenty-six) Simon Rattle premiered his orchestral piece ”Asyla.” This work went on to win the Grawemeyer Award, making Adès the youngest composer ever to receive it.

“Sonata da Caccia” is scored for oboe (or Baroque oboe), horn, and harpsichord. The scoring is a purposeful homage to Claude Debussy, who before his death planned a Sonata No. 4 for the same instruments. The piece is perhaps even more an homage to François Couperin, whose style exerts an obvious influence on it. Whatever one may think of the music of Adès in general, this piece haunts the soul with its self-consciously “Baroque” style colored and distorted by time and loss. One wonders that a twenty-two-year-old with a bright future could have composed such a wistful and backwards-looking work.

The piece is not to be undertaken lightly. The score contains fiendish rhythmic complexity, with many odd cross rhythms and passages delayed off the beat by tying into quintuplets and the like. Much of this has the effect of sounding like ornamentation and rhythmic liberties that have been explicitly spelled out by the composer. The result is that it does not sound nearly as complex as it is. Notwithstanding these challenges, the piece is appearing regularly at chamber music festivals, including at least three in 2015.

While it is possible to view the score at no cost on the Faber website, purchasing the sheet music requires persistence. This is another example of a major music publisher ignoring or even suppressing a piece in its catalog. Faber lists the piece as available “on special sale.” Many of the contact links on both the Thomas Adès and Faber websites were non-functional as of September, 2015. If one is in the U.S., one may find oneself bouncing emails between the U.S. representative and the British representative. Ultimately it is the British home office that can provide the sheet music. The price is expensive at £75, especially since it is a mere photocopy of the composer’s pencil-scrawl. But it is well worth having, especially if one can obtain it through a university library. (Faber does at least provide saddle-stitch binding for the photocopy.)

The sheet music includes a score and parts for oboe, horn, and harpsichord. The harpsichord part appears to be identical to the score. There is also a Baroque oboe part provided that is transposed up a half-step so that it can play in tune with the horn and harpsichord pitched at A-440. Given the chromaticism of the piece, one wonders how practical this part is. Nevertheless the linked recording sounds at times as though it could be Baroque oboe, though there is no acknowledgement as such in the credits. Either way, the recording offers a whirlwind of virtuosity from all three players, not least from the composer at the keyboard.

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