Pianist, composer and conductor Thomas Adès has taken Beethoven’s symphonies on tour with the Britten Sinfonia – programmed alongside the music of Gerald Barry.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

New music often brings out Beethoven’s deft originality and fresh musical innovations. Eternal Recurrence, Barry’s setting of passages for soprano and orchestra from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathrustra, works on the primal energies Nietzsche identified in Beethoven’s work. The piece laughs and bellows, with a heavy emphasis on its antiphonal brass writing, high trumpets and horns batting motifs back and forth across the orchestra, whilst the coloratura vocal line fights to assert its own highly virtuosic interjections.

Barry's brassy writing has the robust declarative character of Janacek’s Sinfonietta, or a beefed-up version of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks. Jennifer France met the challenges it posed with considerable panache: a chewy text full of consonants works against the ringing character of the soprano voice type, so her parlando contributions in the upper register were sometimes hard to pick out of the strident orchestration. The piece has scant dynamic contrast – rarely dropping below mezzo piano – but that mattered little when France’s delivery was so characterful and striking, channeling the hubristic extravagance and aphoristic grandeur of Nietzsche’s text.

This striving spirit segued seamlessly into Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor. From the outset, precise triplets and quietly confident string entries inaugurated a Dionysian intensity, announced by apocalyptic horns. Adès’ tempi were brisk bordering on breathless, communicating a purposeful sense of momentum. The recapitulation in the first movement was an instance of extraordinary intensity and definition, whose energies could embody either destruction or creation. A little quiet would have been welcome at times: the molten coda should build gradually and inexorably, not scorch immediately, and lacked a genuine pianissimo at its outset.

But Adès symphonic atom-smashing paid dividends in the Scherzo, yielding up a performance of extraordinary ferocity and sweep. Beethoven got its initial motif from the sketch of an opera about Bacchus and its Greek hedonism was plain to hear in this performance. It was full of vivid antiphonal exchanges, with the only residual pastoral tenderness in the trio section, in an energetic reading shaped around the barnstorming interjections of William Lockhart’s timpani.

The slow movement maintained rather than diffused this tension, with restless forward movement. Lyrically effusive and emotionally direct, it saw limpid string playing from both violin sections and bold, Romantic interventions from the solo horn’s star turn; Beethoven’s lyricism here is rich and open, and whilst it sometimes ravishing there were scant glimpses of the private and otherworldly Beethoven of his late music.

There was to be no let up. The soloists had not sat down when we launched into what Wagner called the “terrible fanfare” of the finale’s opening. A gruff and admonishing recitative from the basses and cellos gave way to a rare quiet moment in the performance, their soulful introduction of the famous theme more searching and introspective than anything hitherto. But the music’s unassailable confidence soon returned. Bass Matthew Rose made his first entry count, entreating and rousing in equal measure.

Adès whipped on the alla marcia section, and tenor Ed Lyon heroically picked up the gauntlet with bright courage – “Freudig wie ein Held” indeed. The restless energy of this sequence carried us all the way to the finish line, except in the final quartet of our soloists, a ravishing moment of respite with indulgently long lines. The combined voices of the Britten Sinfonia Voices and singers from the Choir of Royal Holloway sang with gusto and lashings of tasty diction. The great “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” chorus was delivered with an incantatory desperation and wildness: not an affirmation of joy and brotherhood that has always belonged, but an attempt to summon it into this world. It was utterly transporting, deeply moving, and brought the audience to their feet – me included.

Adès’ reading of this symphony was precise and propulsive. So far, so Nietzschean – but I have some misgivings. When Wilhelm Fürtwangler reclaimed the symphony at Bayreuth in 1951, he spotlighted its moments of faltering doubt and vulnerability: in places it is is unsure of its own ability to summon joy and brotherhood into the world; sometimes it turns its back on human community altogether. The self-assurance of Adès performance seemed to cast aside the uncertainties and frailties of this music, perhaps occluding its deeper significance.  

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