Of two piano works he wrote in 2009, Thomas Adès modeled one on Chopin’s mazurkas, making a set for Emanuel Ax. In the other, which he wrote for a program of his own, he decided to revisit a work from 14 years before: his first opera, based on the erratic fortunes of the 1950s Duchess of Argyll. “In the opera,” he notes, “the Duchess’s grace and glamour are figured in the music by a certain virtuosity, which encouraged me to feel that parts of the music would translate into a piano paraphrase rather in the manner of Liszt or Busoni.”
Playing for about a quarter of an hour, the work is in four movements, of which the first plunges us into the opening scene just where the Electrician at a London hotel is playacting the Duchess for her Maid’s benefit: “I was beautiful. I was famous.” Excited and glitteringly elaborated, this music segues into an aria for the real Duchess, what the composer calls his “Ode to Joy” — an ode not to Schiller’s democratic rapture but to the Patou perfume.
The short second movement transcribes the beginning of the fifth scene, where the Hotel Manager and the Maid act out an assignation the Duke has with his mistress, the Duke having come from a grand party, with the dancing still on his brain and the drink on his breath.
After this comes the waltz song for the Maid that is the entire third scene, “Fancy being rich,” which a transition links to an early section of the final scene. The Hotel Manager, announcing “It is too late,” tells the Duchess, against her demurrals, that she has to leave.
The paraphrase ends with the dance that closes the opera, a “sheet-folding tango” in which the Electrician and the Maid prepare for the next occupant while playing an erotic game of their own.