In between the runs of his opera The Exterminating Angel in London and New York, Thomas Adès has embarked on a Beethoven Symphony Cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, spread over three years and leavened, if that’s the word, with music by the Irish composer Gerald Barry. As a complete musician – composer, conductor and pianist – Adès is in the same league as Benjamin Britten. Michael Tippett’s observation about Britten, that “music just pours from him”, applies equally well to Adès. He brings a composer’s appreciation of the nuts and bolts that hold music together and create its spirit, and, again like Britten, Adès has as a pianist the knack of opening out the emotional hinterland of other composers with eerie persuasiveness – a recital with Ian Bostridge at Aldeburgh some years back provided all the evidence you’d ever need for his powers of identification. This Beethoven series seems set to be of the same calibre.
Whether or not Beethoven the Classical-style mould-breaker comes into even sharper relief in the context of the iconoclastic Gerald Barry will become clearer as the series unfolds. Barry, whose music Adès champions, is already a supernaturally obsessive composer and is preoccupied by Beethoven and the way he can write the elementals of being human into his music.
Barry’s Beethoven (2008), scored for baritone, string quintet, piano and wind instruments, deconstructs Beethoven’s letter to the Immortal Beloved with the sort of freewheeling expressionism that fires up his takes on The Importance of Being Earnest and the Alice books. How Barry sustains his eruptive streams of consciousness is anyone’s guess – you wonder what he’d be like to have a drink with. His music subverts while keeping the lightest purchase on a-logic-of-sorts as music and text pursue their disparate courses. Moments where both coalesce, as in the last section – “Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved” (Beethoven, or perhaps his translator, was no grammarian) – are a relief before the music blasts off into evermore allusive territory. Mark Stone, a Barry regular, was a terrific narrator, falsettist and crooner, and Adès and the Britten Sinfonia kept Barry’s anarchic, fleeting score on the boil.
A friend puts her resistance to Beethoven down to performances of the Symphonies that have hectored her into the ground. I hope she’ll reconsider with Adès and the Britten Sinfonia at the helm. Symphony No.1’s sly opening joke, which Beethoven’s audience would have got immediately, made its mark, as did Adès’s lithe Allegro con brio for the first movement, taken at a pace that flattered all the score’s detail. Adès encouraged an attractive bloom to expand out of the strings in the serenade-like Andante, ghosted by a firm but unobtrusive rhythmic pulse. The account of No.2 reminded just how prescient the first movement’s heroic coda is of the spirit of No.7, and Adès opened out the bucolic charms of the Larghetto like as if a test-drive for the ‘Pastoral’. In both works, there were instances where Adès got the translation of the personal Beethoven of, say, the Sonatas into his public style absolutely right, and I was gripped by the easy verve of the Britten Sinfonia’s stylish phrasing, where the different types of wriggle room required by bowers and blowers slid into each other as if greased, producing a wonderfully vertiginous ensemble. And no hectoring…
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- Exterminating Angel