Composers who also conduct often do so differently to their full-time counterparts. Their gestures are simpler – and frequently more useful to their players than the refined curlicue preferred by some career conductors. The composer Thomas Adès also plays the piano differently. He peers diffidently at the score as if seeing it for the first time. Meanwhile, his fingers flash up and down the keyboard in a haze of perfectly struck executions. The result is an unusual limpidity in performance, as if the music is being explained as it is played.
The eclectic (to say the least) programme for this solo piano recital was organised around Adès's new concert paraphrase of his opera Powder Her Face. In the days before recordings, familiarity with the operas of the day was sustained through such piano transcriptions, a practice Liszt elevated into recital showpieces with elaborate riffs on favourite moments all woven together. Adès's paraphrase was strewn with absurd technical difficulties, but it was also a substantial four-movement work in itself. It was of a tenderer cut than the opera, and full of the restless searching charm that underpins his best work.
Liszt's own ridiculous adaptation of Isolde's Liebestod, from Wagner's Tristan, proved a wayward chaperone, as did Janácek's unoperatic second foray, On an Overgrown Path, which lacked the damaged fluency that its greatest interpreters bring to it. But this was more than compensated by a blistering rendition of Prokofiev's hilarious, razor-edged Sarcasms, and by Beethoven's Bagatelles. Composed as respite from the Ninth Symphony, these little works juxtapose the luminous textures of the last sonatas with the back-slapping humour of his early work. Their awkwardness is of a piece with Adès's own – and this performance was a revelation.