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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Gerald Barry (b. 1952)
Beethoven (2008)
Piano Concerto (2012)
Viola Concerto (2018-19)
The Conquest of Ireland (1995)
The Eternal Recurrence (1999)
Mark Stone (baritone), Nicolas Hodges (piano), Lawrence Power (violist), Joshua Bloom (bass), Jennifer France (soprano), Christianne Stotjin (mezzo-soprano), Ed Lyon (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass)
Britten Sinfonia Voices, The Choir of Royal Holloway
Britten Sinfonia/Thomas Adès
rec. 2017-19, Theatre Royal, Brighton (syms 1 & 2), Barbican Hall, London

This is the second complete survey of the Beethoven symphonies that I have been fortunate to review this year, and, for different reasons, is the most unexpected. It has an unusual advantage (or for some - the reverse) in that it matches the Beethoven symphonic cycle with a modern composer whose music is, to put it mildly, ‘controversial’.

I have not heard the Britten Sinfonia in concert and this release was an unexpected pleasure. Just a few months ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing the outstanding new DG cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and this new cycle is of a very high standard, in terms of both performance and the recording. That we have the bonus of music by Ireland’s Gerald Barry should not put off buyers from acquiring this magnificent set.

Thomas Adès explains why he includes Barry’s music in this Beethoven cycle: ‘This collection is the fruit of two parallel passions. After twenty years of performing and often premiering Gerald Barry’s works, I was frantic to record as much of it as possible. I had also loved working on Beethoven Symphonies with Britten Sinfonia, and suddenly an idea was born: why not dare the two firebrands to join hands?’ The booklet notes describe Barry’s response: ‘It startled me. The first record I bought when I was about 13 was Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. We didn’t have a record player so all I could do was study the cover and advertisements on the back. I could look and see but not hear. I would take the record out and smell it. I used my nose as a stylus going round and round.’

Five of the 6 CDs contain pieces by Barry. Having little previous acquaintance with his music, I find Barry’s music intriguing, and it is clear why Adès has chosen to pair it with Beethoven’s symphonic cycle. He challenges the limits of the listener’s patience and takes one to the borderlines of tolerance but I maintain that while Barry's music is challenging for both performer and listener, it deserves a wider audience.

For this Beethoven cycle, Adès uses modern instruments but adopts historically informed performance practice, with brisk tempos - close to the scores - and a minimum of vibrato while avoiding repeats in almost all the symphonies. His orchestra of virtuosi present the listener with a terrifically exciting cycle, often playing with a swagger, their clipped phrases infusing the playing with greater rhythm and drama as if to give the impression that one is hearing this music for the first time. He uses different groups of players for each symphony and obtains the highest standards of performance by inspiring his musicians to give of their best. The engineers have provided outstanding sound, as if we are sitting in the middle of the concert hall. The quality of the performances is clear from the first CD that couples the first two symphonies with Barry’s ‘Beethoven’. Adès treats these early symphonies as important works, making the distinction between them and Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonic style, and bringing out the light-hearted nature of the scherzos with meticulous precision.

Gerald Barry’s ‘Beethoven’ is based on Beethoven’s famous ‘Letter to his Beloved’ and is sung here by the baritone Mark Stones, who, at times, speaks, sings and uses falsetto mixed with a roughly uttered rumination in a score which often hints of Stravinsky - yet there emerges something of Barry's ideas in a pleasing composition that complement the symphonies.

The Eroica is in the grand manner with terrific playing again by this ensemble of experienced chamber and orchestra musicians. There are marvellous contributions from the oboe of Melanie Rothman and flute of Harry Winstanley. The timpanist William Lockhart uses hard sticks, lending a period sense to the performance; throughout, Adès adopts a manner close to the text and ensures a great triumphant close.

Nicolas Hodges is the soloist in Barry’s Piano Concerto, and unusually, the piano plays against the orchestra; as Jo Kirkbride writes, ‘the soloist and orchestra butting up against one another in bold vertical lines'. The dialogue is abrasive; great blocks of sound are mercilessly tossed against each other. In the finale, the two forces come together in a loud confrontation in which an orchestral piano joins the struggle in a ‘Storm’ episode, leaving the music unresolved.

The dazzling performance level continues masterfully with outstanding interpretations of Symphonies 4 and 5 joined with Barry’s Viola Concerto, bringing out the tenderness and dynamism of Beethoven’s writing. The string playing is lean and dynamic and Adès directs his musicians with a sense of urgency, often adopting hair-raising tempos and driving his players on ferociously. Once again, there is a sense of hearing this music for the first time.

The Viola Concerto is immaculately performed by Lawrence Power and there are more hints of the of Stravinsky’s and of Bartók’s middle periods. This is an enjoyable piece and closes with the soloist whistling as the composer suggests in the notes: ‘The music ends with a melody. I was walking along the road the other day whistling it and suddenly a builder stood up from behind a wall with a grin and said, “Great tune!”’

The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is a highlight of this cycle; Adès conjures quite astonishingly fine playing with world-class woodwind intonation, notably in the Andante molto moto ‘Scene by the Brook’ and outstanding playing from Harry Winstanley on the flute and Melanie Rothman on the oboe. One may recall how many times one has listened to this symphony, yet here Adès finds something fresh to present to his listeners. He pushes the music on throughout, delivering a briskly enacted Allegro ‘Peasants’ merrymaking’ followed by the Allegro, ‘The storm’ before the wonderfully performed Allegretto ‘Shepherd’s song and Joyous thanksgiving after the storm’, given an exciting tempo. Again, one is persuaded that this is as Beethoven wanted this masterpiece to be performed.

Joshua Bloom sings ‘The Conquest of Ireland,’ based on text from Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis, dicitur Giraldus de Barri (1146-1223). The music is extraordinary and is often in danger of breaking, up yet Bloom’s dark bass reigns supreme in narrating the terrible battles through which Ireland was conquered.

On CD 5, the Beethoven Seventh has the conductor securing electrically intense playing and conjuring suspense-filled music before the joyous Vivace passage shows his musicians playing at a desperately brisk pace, heralding the blistering Scherzo in a rhythmic whirlwind. It contrasts with the delightful Trio before we return to the key of A major in the finale, Allegro, a storming passage bursting with excitement and joy.

Adès treats the Eighth symphony as a significant piece in the Beethoven cycle by bringing out all the bright optimism of this work, yet attaining a sobriety in the third movement, Tempo di menuetto. In the finale, Allegro vivace, he presents the composer as a revolutionary, treating the performance as a bewildering journey, steering it through extremes of dynamics and roaring fortissimo while embracing unusual combinations of key relationships ranging from F major to F sharp minor. It is among the highlights of this set.

The Ninth Symphony, too, is one of the finest performances on this set. Adès treatment is awe-inspiring, right from the accentuated dramatic energy opening bars of the opening bars; he obtains a masterly performance of great stature from his huge forces. The singers are magnificent and fully backed by the superb Britten Sinfonia – one of their great triumphs on record.

The piece by Barry which shares this disc is ‘The Eternal Recurrence’, a natural combination in which Barry uses the texts by Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Soprano Jennifer France is given an alarming number of seemingly impossible Cs and a breathless parlando delivery which she succeeds in delivering marvellously well. The composer pursued this unique method in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant of 2005. He argues, ‘The music isn’t illustrative in the conventional way, but it mirrors the complex way people speak. […] there could be a whole kaleidoscope of emotion running through our heads.’ There is a bewildering, frenetic energy in the music as if we are being taken on a whirlwind of discovery; as Barry says, ‘the music uses everyday musical gestures to produce something feverish and brilliant.’

In all these live recordings, the engineers manage to give the best possible sound quality - there is no hint that an audience is present. The six CDs are enclosed in paper sleeves in a sturdy cardboard box. The 74-page booklet contains informative notes by Jo Kirkbride on both the symphonies and Gerald Barry’s music, together with texts by Barry on his compositions, plus biographies and colour photos of the performers with English translations of the librettos and texts. Thomas Adès’ Beethoven cycle stands along with the finest available and betters many cycles by more celebrated ensembles. It will prove a memorable addition to anyone’s collection.

Gregor Tassie

Published: November 28, 2022

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