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Thomas Adès surveys heaven and hell in 'Dante,' his masterly ballet

Thomas Adès, whose new ballet 'Dante,' with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale led by Gustavo Dudamel, is now an album on Nonesuch.
Thomas Adès, whose new ballet 'Dante,' with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale led by Gustavo Dudamel, is now an album on Nonesuch.

Thomas Adès loves Liszt. No, no — he really loves Liszt. In his relentlessly fascinating ballet, Dante (2019-20), the renowned British composer gives nods to other composers, but tips his hand with “The Thieves — devoured by reptiles,” in which he reimagines Grand Galop Chromatique, one of Liszt’s most brilliant works for solo piano. With his own bit of worshipful thievery, Adès translates the Hungarian virtuoso’s textures into an orchestral riot. At the first concert performance in London, the surprised audience broke out into spontaneous applause — unusual, given the decorum of classical audiences — with over half the ballet still to come.

Now the entire score has now been handsomely recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and released on Nonesuch Records. Captured in Walt Disney Concert Hall in April 2022, with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm, the album was engineered by Alexander Lipay and Dmitriy Lipay, the same duo nominated for a Grammy Award for their work on Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, also with Dudamel and the orchestra.

Adès finds inspiration in Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia, which Liszt returned to repeatedly, in works such as Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (1849) for piano, and the Dante Symphony (1857) for orchestra. Similarly, Adès mines Dante’s prose for its wellspring of color, and revels in the paintbox offered by a large, virtuosic orchestra.

Of the three sections, the opening Inferno is the most extroverted, with sly, warped orchestral colors often singeing the ears. From the apocalyptic clanging of “Abandon Hope,” to the grotesque edge of the “Pavan of the Souls in Limbo” — and then that hair-raising “Thieves” — Adès leaps from peak to peak, and ends the section with a bewitching evocation of Satan.

For the middle Purgatorio, the mood is radically different, opening with icy breaths of “Dawn of the Sea of Purgatory.” Against a growl of low strings, the recorded voice of a khazan appears, intoning an early-morning prayer, which eventually leads to a torrent of Middle Eastern harmonies — a departure from the ballet’s tumultuous first half-hour. Those ideas blossom further in “The Valley of Flowers,” and then in “The Healing Fire,” before reaching a climax in “The Earthly Paradise.” A lonely trumpet leads “The Heavenly Procession,” and “The Ascent,” with its mild clangor echoing the very beginning of the ballet, before a radiant chord heralds the third section.

In the final Paradiso, clarity appears, in yet another departure from the earlier hour. In his liner notes — a beautifully written, comprehensive road map — the writer Charles Arrowsmith is moved to mention geometry, and compares the harmonic world with that of Bedřich Smetana. Adès offers beguiling simplicity in ten sections filled with stars, planets, and the mysteries of astronomy. Rising figures in the strings meet glittering harp and triangle passages, and in the final two minutes — perhaps an allusion to “Neptune,” the finale of Holst’s The Planets — the texture adds the women’s voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

It is hard to overstate the Los Angeles musicians’ mastery in the sprawling kaleidoscope, and Dudamel’s careful harnessing of its contrasts over the long span. Throughout the almost 90-minute score, the players find glorious abandon, with the conductor carefully gauging the dramatic arc, and the flamboyant hues in each of the three sections. And when the composer’s luminous wonderland finally arrives, it is paradisiacal, indeed.

In Adès’ storied career — with chamber music classics like Living Toys (1993) and Arcadiana (1994), plus groundbreaking operas like Powder Her Face (1995) and The Exterminating Angel (2016) — Dante is his first ballet, and curiosity is aroused to see the work properly staged. London’s Royal Ballet gave Dante its choreographic debut in 2021 with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, and stage designs by the artist Tacita Dean. (The recording booklet includes some seductive photographs from the production.)

I hope Dante entices other artists in the dance world, especially for choreographers with the ability to think big. (Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet, are you listening?) In Mark Swed’s comments for the Los Angeles Times, he adds Dante to a “shortlist of great ballet scores by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten and Bernstein.” Who knows? After a few years, it’s hard not to imagine that this extroverted new creation from Adès will join them.

Thomas Adès' Dante is available now on Nonesuch Records.

Bruce Hodges writes about classical music for The Strad, and has contributed articles to Lincoln Center, Playbill, New Music Box, London’s Southbank Centre, Strings, and Overtones, the magazine of the Curtis Institute of Music. His is a former columnist for The Juilliard Journal, and former North American editor for Seen and Heard International. He currently lives in Philadelphia.