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In the first movement the viola is a gondolier poling through the other instruments’ moonlit water, with shreds of shadowy waltz drifting in now and then. Next, under a quotation from The Magic Flute (‘That sounds so delightful, that sounds so divine’ sing Monostatos and the slaves when Papageno plays his bells), comes a song for the cello under glistening harmonics. The music is stopped twice in its tracks by major chords, and slips away whistling something from the Mozart score. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ ('To be sung on the water') takes its title and a figuration from a Schubert song, though here the song is Adès’s own, over which water seems to be falling in drops, with increasing antagonism between the elements.
The tango centrepiece—the non-idyll—relates to Poussin’s paintings in which shepherds in a classical landscape make out the inscription on a tomb: ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, which could be understood as voiced by the deceased ('I too was in Arcadia') or by Death ('Even in Arcadia I am there'). Like those paintings, Adès’s Arcadian sequence at once beguiles and threatens, not least here, in what is its longest section. Still in the Louvre, the following movement relates to Watteau’s ‘L’Embarquement pour Cythère’ ('Boarding for Cythera', an island sacred to Aphrodite) and changes darkness to light, with high cadences and song phrases turning into water music that splashes out from Debussy’s response to the same picture, L’îsle joyeuse. From Venice, Vienna and Paris, ‘O Albion’ comes to England for a meditation on ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. (The first performance of Arcadiana was given at the Cambridge Elgar Festival.) Lethe, in Greek mythology, is the river of forgetting, as Adès remembers in the trajectory of his cello song, taken up by the other instruments and gradually lost.
from notes by Paul Griffiths © 2015