This second installation in Thomas Adès’ three year-long Beethoven symphony cycle with the Britten Sinfonia paired the titanic Eroica with Irish composer Gerald Barry’s Chevaux-de-frise of 1988. With Barry’s music never dipping below fortissimo and the Beethoven given thrillingly imperious treatment, this was a remarkably loud concert for a chamber orchestra.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

The title Chevaux-de-frise refers in a literal sense to the wooden spikes attached to charging cavalry in battle, designed to impale oncoming riders. Chevaux was, however, written for the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada, Jo Kirkbride’s excellent programme notes instead allude to the white horses of crashing waves. This was certainly a suitable image for the central passages of the work, in which staccato dotted rhythms fly around the orchestra relatively wildly after the slammed-out, brutally even crotchet figures of the opening minutes. These dissonant chords were played with utmost evenness and almost unbearably relentless intensity, despite a few early lapses in ensemble across the stage. The effect was surely as striking as Barry could have wished for. There is no pretending that this is pleasant or comfortable music to hear (though why should it be?), but it was heartening to see both conductor and composer beaming at the warm reception from the Barbican – a far cry from the rather less positive reaction at the work’s Proms première twenty-nine years ago.

One had to wonder during the interval whether Beethoven 3 might feel a touch anaemic after such outrageously bold, modern music. Far from any hint of insipidity, though, Adès’ thrillingly raw and gritty Eroica was as much a firecracker as I have heard it. Tempi were quick throughout, at times astonishingly so, with the sparse vibrato and light textures that modern Beethoven gives us, but with the flexibility to pull back on the reins at some of the more dramatic strophes in the symphony. 

The remarkable pace of the monumental first movement, surely pushing some of the notes to the edge of playability, saw the elaborate development sweep by in a breathless flurry of brass and drums. There were several pleasing touches of originality, even in such a well-trodden work as this, in exaggerating some brutal outbursts on the manual timpani and – in a particuarly magical coda – highlighting the legato of the horns against the lighter dancing string figures.

The Adagio assai funeral march was also relatively brisk, in a steely rather than particularly mournful sense. In a similar vein, the central Maggiore was brilliantly swaggering, culminating in an almighty fortississimo for trumpets and timp rolls.

After a blistering Scherzo, which slowed only slightly for the excellent horns’ trio, the finale remained gutsy and raw. Like the first movement, its best moments tended to come when Adès relaxed into a one-in-a-bar beat, with some of the more detailed direction feeling a little cumbersome. There was much to admire in the woodwind and strings’ virtuosity in getting fingers and tongues around the bristling semiquaver run before the coda bounded to its rambunctious conclusion. This was fine Beethoven from a conductor who certainly knows how to make things sound shocking and new, and the remainder of the cycle in the next two seasons will be well worth hearing.