I started with the Eroica, a fleet reading, all over in forty-five minutes (including first-movement repeat; without the latter, echoes of Scherchen’s 1958 account for Westminster) but, in the first movement anyway, the music-making is poised, dug into and propulsive without seeming rushed or hectoring. Thomas Adès is a man for detail, and the Britten Sinfonia responds with playing of clarity, complemented by what can be the Barbican Hall’s unforgiving acoustic; here the players need have no fears about the spotlight, although Adès’s whirlwind approach can mean that breathing spaces are non-existent and corners become straight lines. With the Funeral March one’s thoughts turn to Roger Norrington; Adès is similarly direct, a quick march that lacks both dignity and pathos, if not a certain rage, although the left-positioned double basses, just the three, are surprisingly imposing considering their meagre numbers (and yes, the violins are antiphonal). Otherwise, the remaining two movements are pushed along, meaning that the ultimate coda has its release-thunder stolen somewhat. Leave the second disc running and Gerald Barry’s Piano Concerto (2012) turns up – Barry (born 1952) was Beethoven’s musical partner for the concerts contemporaneous with Signum’s recording project – the work’s opening employing combative brass- and piano-writing that reminds of Stravinsky, save that with typical quirkiness the Irishman then takes us along several stylistic streets for twenty-two seemingly disconnected minutes. It’s engaging though if ear-attacking and Nicolas Hodges deserves a bouquet for his fearless dexterity of the complex solo writing, as do the Britten Sinfonia – heroic contributions – and engineer Tony Faulkner for balancing the protagonists equally (in this live performance) while finding a little more space to the rear of the Barbican Hall’s stage. As for the work itself, there is much to discover and wonder about: not many Piano Concertos include a wind machine or are such an unremitting assault on the listener; personally I welcome the challenge.
The initial disc includes Beethoven’s first two Symphonies, spirited accounts as you would expect, now in the Theatre Royal, Brighton, with similar close scrutiny given to the musicians, albeit within a more-reverberant acoustic than the London venue. Opus 21 is bouncier than expected, to its advantage, in fact it’s rather enjoyable. Opus 36 similarly (a thrilling ending to the first movement, to match Celibidache and Kubelík, an eloquently turned Larghetto, and a genuinely Allegro Scherzo, the Trio accommodated without pause and in tempo, whereas the Finale is fuelled by a tempest, and Adès knows about those): in both these works Adès has the knack of belying expectations based on the movement timings. And he includes all repeats: my understanding is that at the concerts he left most of them out, but that is hearsay. Finally, back to Mr Barry and the Barbican for the appropriately titled Beethoven (2008), a scene for bass and ensemble setting (in an English translation) the composer’s letter to his Immortal Beloved, “a passionate outpouring of love and regret to an unnamed woman…” in which (baritone) Mark Stone is a superb singing actor for a piece in which Barry dons his Stravinsky cloak without apology and also goes his own way. Signum Classics SIGCD616 (2 CDs).
I am now looking forward to the rest of Ades’s Beethoven Symphony Cycle, hopefully to include the other Barry pieces that were featured in the concerts, not least Chevaux-de-frise.
Meanwhile, on these pages, search Adès for words about him conducting his own Piano Concerto and Totentanz.