Beethoven symphony cycles may be as regular as resignations from the government, but the three-year project by Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia has really stood out for the visceral and energetic approach that has been consistently taken to these Classical warhorses. The other constant feature has been the appearance of works by Gerald Barry, a composer for whose music Adès clearly has a natural affection and affinity. It has offered the Barbican audience a rare chance explore Barry’s music in depth and the pairing with Beethoven has offered at times some quite fascinating auditory contrasts. The first of the final two concerts of the cycle joined Barry’s Viola Concerto on its world premiere tour with Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

Adès commenced with the Seventh and his interpretation was perhaps more rewarding than with the Eighth. There was no slouching here, no gentle ambling; Adès maintained brisk tempi throughout and what the first movement lost in thoughtful grandeur it gained in a pace of youthful impetuosity. There was verve and swagger to the woodwind flourishes; one of the key elements in the success of this cycle has been Adès’ way of bringing so much definition and detail to the playing and this was palpable within the strings (beautifully coloured) below the woodwind. Once or twice there seemed to be a slight disagreement in pace between the brass – beefed up for this performance – and the strings, but on the whole, Adès managed to maintain an admirable unity in the orchestra through the gallops of the first movement. We’re used to rather funereal readings of the Allegretto, but again Adès maintained pace, a sense of urgency beneath those pale, searching strings followed by the rich and dynamic tutti moments. Adès seemed to shorten down the Scherzo – a shame as it diminished the sweetness of some of the woodwind playing, but did have the effect of launching us at some speed into a ferocious finale, vigorously played but without a loss of any detail.

I’m not necessarily sure I would want to hear Barry’s Viola Concerto on disc very often, but it is an extremely effective concert piece. Lawrence Power jointed Adès as violist and also whistler, the piece requiring the violist to lower his bow and end the piece on a gentle, lilting whistle, perhaps Barry’s way of teasing those who expect a good concerto to end in a dynamic blaze. It’s a piece that can’t be described in any other way than as ‘fun’; one sits, grinning, as these rather serious exercises are undertaken by the violist with sudden contributions from the brass as disruptive as a drunk geriatric at Christmas dinner. There are some lovely moments though as the viola enters into dialogue with the orchestra, the entire viola section falling into rank after the soloist, as if learning from him. It’s one of those pieces where the apparent simplicity is a testament to the complexity of the composer’s writing. Here’s hoping that we’ll see it again in London.

After the interval, we were back to Beethoven and clearly Adès hadn’t run out of steam for the Eighth because we were given another belting performance. It isn’t a symphony that works quite so well if taken unrelentingly quickly and one felt that at times the first movement was less brisk and more hurried, which reduced the amount of detail that Adès was able to draw from the orchestra. The second movement seemed almost to pulse and the strings glowed against the cooler woodwind. The finale again galloped, the brass pert and the timpani urgent. Eight symphonies down, it will be interesting to hear Adès’ reading of the Ninth later in the week.

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