Thomas Adès’ cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies started in 2017 to great acclaim, the freshness of his approach to the first three suggesting that the remaining six across 2018 and 2019 would be must-see concerts. The second stage of the cycle was in two concerts: the first evening saw Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth paired with Barry’s Piano Concerto, while this concert on the second evening had the Symphony no. 6 in F major (the “Pastoral”) juxtaposed with Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

Gerald Barry is the constant partner of Beethoven across Adès’ whole cycle; to Adès, both the composers are innovators, disruptors of the musical status quo and therefore ideally paired. Barry’s work has been somewhat prominent of late, most notably the recent première of his Organ Concerto which was a big success. The Conquest of Ireland is classic Barry, playing as it does with contrast and clashes, confounding audience and aural expectations at whim. At the centre of the work are extracts from the 12th-century historical text Expugnatio Hibernica by Gerald of Wales, dealing with Henry II’s invasion of Ireland in 1171. Barry hones in on the writer’s detailed descriptions of the Anglo-Norman soldiers and their Irish counterparts, the dry detail of the text counteracted by Barry’s excitable and often ludicrous score. It’s scored for orchestra and bass voice, sung here by Joshua Bloom on whom Barry places substantial demands. Flexibility of range and integration of registers was essential, and Bloom’s voice kept up with the sudden drops and rises without any apparent effort. Of note was the superb playing of the bass clarinet at the start of the piece and some excellent playing from the horns. It’s not a piece that’s easy to like, but there’s plenty going on and Adès brought out some of the work’s best features: the sudden change from throbbing warmth to a grim black pulse, and the short sharp flurries from the strings, played here with cohesion and precision.

Adès’ approach to the “Pastoral” lived up to expectations. The performance came across as almost clinical at times in the extreme precision and differentiation among the players, but without any sacrifice of the warmth and colour of Beethoven’s imagery. In the first movement the flutes really cut across the orchestra and clean velvet lines from the double-basses underpinned the playing. Phrases were shaped, but had impetuosity driving them forward. The Andante was the highlight of the performance, the colours lavishly painted, and the playing from the woodwind superbly done, pellucid and precise in the representations of birdsong. The third movement, full of the flavour of country dancing was brought to life by the rich and perky horns while the violence of the timpani brought a sense of danger to the storm of the fourth movement, subsiding into the relief of the shepherds’ song of thanksgiving. The Britten Sinfonia throughout seemed immediately responsive to Adès who clearly drew inspired playing from the orchestra. It bodes well for the final stage of the cycle next year.