Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) [24:54]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-02) [31:39]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica” (1803-04) [44:53]
Gerald BARRY (b. 1952)
Beethoven (2008) [17:35]
Piano Concerto (2012) [22:41]
Mark Stone (baritone) (Beethoven); Nicolas Hodges (piano) (Concerto)
Britten Sinfonia/Thomas Adès
rec. 2017/18, Theatre Royal, Brighton & Barbican, London, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD616 [74:21 + 67:48]
Thomas Adès is absolutely amazing in the versatility of his talents. He is not only one of today’s most important composers, but also a fine pianist of his own works as well as in the music of others, such as Janáček, and as a conductor of his music and that of other composers. Here he takes on Beethoven’s first three symphonies and two more recent pieces by Gerald Barry.
Adès approaches Beethoven in the manner of Historically Informed Performance (HIP), but with the modern instruments of the crack Britten Sinfonia, an orchestra of 40-50 players. The first CD contains the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, and Barry’s “mini-opera,” Beethoven, while the second disc has the “Eroica” and Barry’s Piano Concerto. I compared the Beethoven with two other recordings that use modern instruments, but also owe much to HIP practice: David Zinman’s with the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova) and Osmo Vänskä’s with the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS). Overall, Adès chooses quicker tempos than Vänskä that are more in line with Zinman’s. Unlike Zinman, though, he plays the works straight without the extra ornamentation that Zinman seems to favour. The strings also employ little vibrato. I really find much to like in Adès’s approach to the First Symphony, even with his heavily accented notes and at times brusque phrasing. The recorded sound is close-up and very clear, so that one hears everything in the score well. In comparing these recordings with the other conductors’, I found it necessary to reduce the volume a bit.
I am somewhat less convinced with the Second Symphony. While Adès’s interpretation does not preclude warmth, Vänskä brings out the lyricism, especially in the slow movement, better. Adès is overly speedy in the Scherzo, almost humourously so, compared to the others. On the other hand, his finale is brilliant, fast and light, with beautiful woodwinds. Even with my reservations here, I am certain to return to this account, as well as to that of the Symphony No. 1
Adès tackles the “Eroica” in a blazing performance, very energetic but not lacking in affection. Again his tempos are closer to Zinman’s than the slightly slower Vänskä. He has the horns and trumpets ring out with great presence and his dynamic range is good, but narrower than Vänskä’s where the soft parts are at times barely audible. The timpani also make their presence known, but are not overdone as they occasionally are with Zinman. As with the others, Adès takes the exposition repeat—something I am now getting used to, though do not find particularly necessary. The horn solo in the recapitulation is quite ravishing by the Britten Sinfonia. The musicians are all listed in the booklet for each work on the CD, and the principal horn is Martin Owen for the Beethoven works. It is curious that for the Third Symphony there are four horns noted in the booklet, rather than three for which the piece is scored. Special mention should also be acknowledged for the solo oboe—here I assume Peter Facer—especially in the Marcia funebre, which flows nicely under Adès’s baton. The Scherzo is likewise winning, light and joyous, with terrific horns in the Trio. The finale is not rushed, but ebullient and celebratory with remarkable élan while the minor key episode chugs along splendidly! The woodwinds and horns are especially glorious and the coda blazing with the last two notes very short—a la Szell. As a whole, Adès’s Beethoven is scrubbed clean and worth returning to for its insights and conviction.
Turning to the works of Gerald Barry, I am not sure what to think. Are we to take him seriously, or is he just pulling our leg? His quasi mini-opera Beethoven is set to Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved” that consists of his “outpouring of love and regret to an unnamed woman,” as described by Jo Kirkbride in the booklet notes. The letter is divided into three sections: the morning of July 6, evening of the same day, and morning of July 7. Barry’s music does not in the least reflect the heartrending text of the letters and attempts to impart everyday reality to the proceedings in contradiction to what is sung. Kirkbride observes that if Barry’s setting “seems to lack empathy, this detachment also makes Beethoven’s words somehow more real.” I am not sufficiently convinced, as entertaining as the music may be.
Barry provides different music for each section, beginning with something that is more than a little reminiscent of Stravinsky in his neo-Classical vein. The brass really get a workout here with prominent solos by horns and trumpets. The vocal writing is basically declamatory and Mark Stone delivers the goods with very clean diction. He switches to falsetto whenever portraying Beethoven’s “beloved.” The second section contrasts with some subdued and slower phrasing, but also contains some jazzy, dance-like music. The final section is almost entirely accompanied by the Christmas carol, Adeste Fideles (“O Come All Ye Faithful”), begun as a quiet chorale on winds and brass. Beethoven is surely memorable, if nothing else. It has been recorded before and well sung by baritone Stephen Richardson with the Crash Ensemble under Paul Hillier (Orchid), but Stone is every bit as fine and has better diction.
Barry’s Piano Concerto is a harder nut to crack. The work is in a single movement and apparently a piece of theatre with the piano and orchestra opposing each other. They only occasionally play together in the concerto’s nearly 23-minute length. Kirkbride states that “Barry offers up a recourse to the antiphonal exchanges of the Baroque concerto, refracted and reinterpreted through his own unforgiving and rather brutalist lens.” The piece begins promisingly enough with growling low brass before the piano enters in understated opposition. Loud, screaming trumpets have a significant role, too, that recall some of Adès’s own music. Both orchestra and piano assault the listener throughout the concerto, but near the end two wind machines are employed to depict a storm accompanied by the piano’s rolling arpeggios. The piano gets the last word, concluding the work with quiet repeated notes. I do not sense a readily discernable structure to this work, though it does not lack interest and contains sufficient humour if not downright silliness. Nicolas Hodges, for whom the concerto was composed, plays it to the hilt.
The works on this programme were recorded in two separate locales, but there are not any notable differences in the sound. The engineers have solved the Barbican’s dry acoustics quite well with the recordings having considerable presence. The discs are housed in an attractive bi-fold album with extensive notes in English on the works, the performers, and a listing of the orchestra members for each work. I shall return to these CDs primarily for the Beethoven performances, but also hope to gain a greater appreciation of Gerald Barry’s music.