Composers have been fortunate that the term that came to define a work for soloist and orchestra has an etymology that draws on the concepts of both conflict and harmony. A concerto can present a competition between the two parties – literally, a “concerted effort” – or can come anywhere between the two extremes. For Gerald Barry, given his combative musical style, it had to mean the former. His Piano Concerto, co-commissioned in 2012 by Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, finally received its London première here as the filling in a Beethovenian sandwich, part of the Britten Sinfonia’s multi-season Beethoven symphony cycle under the baton of Thomas Adès.

Nicolas Hodges © Eric Richmond
Nicolas Hodges
© Eric Richmond

Written at around the same time as Barry’s raucous operatic adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, the concerto is more confrontational still. He sets the soloist and brass-dominated orchestra against each other, parrying gestures and challenges, offering up ideas that are instantly and often violently rejected by the other party, and with a to-ing and fro-ing in which silences can be as potent as the notes themselves. It is music, typically angular but with a Stravinskian feeling for vibrant timbres, that seems to want to tear ahead and hold things up at one and the same time. And Nicolas Hodges held nothing back in his fiercely committed playing of the solo part, at a couple of points thumping the poor keyboard with all his might, at others teasing out a frail strand of melody. And Adès’ orchestra, though a little light on string weight, took Hodges on with a passion. It was a shame that the stereophonic pair of wind machines didn’t make the deafening clamour promised in the programme note, but they nonetheless contributed to the ultimately playful battle – which probably has to be declared a tie, given the noncommittal but poignant close.

Not much music could happily sit alongside such a piece, but Beethoven certainly can hold his own. The Fourth and Fifth symphonies make a contrasting pair, and Adès emphasised their differences as much as their shared energy. The first movement of no. 4 often had a chamber-like conviviality, yet there was plenty of panache to the tuttis, and a lovely poise and atmosphere to the brief echoes of string scales and tickled timpani at the movement’s heart. The Adagio was balanced in its contrasts of drama and lyricism and boasted some silken playing from the Sinfonia's fine woodwind section. The Scherzo had rigour and the finale lithe energy.

The fate-knocking opening to no. 5 swept in before the last few audience members had found their seats following the interval, but the concentration never wavered. The strangely broken-up first presentation of the Andante’s theme apart, this was a pithy but suavely shaped account of a work whose revolutionary nature can easily be hidden behind over-weighty bluster. Here, though, Adès’s control and flexibility were exemplary, and the players of the Britten Sinfonia conveyed all the work’s energy, subtlety and, in the final movement, triumphant joy.

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