Fresh from his success at the Royal Opera House where he has just finished conducting the first British production of The Exterminating Angel, Thomas Adès has now turned his attention to Beethoven, commencing a cycle of the nine symphonies over the next three years with the Britten Sinfonia. Among the symphonies will be interspersed a number of compositions by contemporary Irish composer Gerald Barry, probably best known for his striking operatic adaptations of Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde, and to whose work Adès has become increasingly linked in recent times.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

The series opened in an appropriately programmatic manner with Barry’s Beethoven, an 18-minute piece for a small orchestral ensemble and bass, Barry’s take on Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter in which every one of Beethoven’s words is sung (in Emily Anderson’s translation). The solo part was taken by the baritone Mark Stone who ran the gamut of his vocal scope, the dark honey of his lower range interrupted by jarring bouts of skilful falsetto. In a work such as this, attention to the text is vital and Stone showed impeccable diction and a fine emotional range. The writing for orchestra is just as disconcerting and Barry seems to capture the portrait of Beethoven’s personality that has been passed down from primary sources – energetic, tempestuous and contradictory. Particularly enjoyable were the moments of calm blown apart by the pianist slamming crossed arms upon his instrument, and the periodic ebb and flow-like effects. It’s a complex composition that fascinates and lingers in the memory.

For the start of the Beethoven cycle proper, we were given the first two symphonies and it was immediately clear that Adès’ approach was unlikely to be stale. The Symphony no. 1 in C major opened with powerful pizzicato, clean and full. Tempi were bracing, no stately classical pomposity from Adès; rather, a sense of drama, particularly in the way he emphasised the woodwind against the strings. The brass was more collegiate than domineering, and there was a thrilling bite to the strings in the Andante. Adès spun out the tension in the opening to the fourth movement; his control seemed to be tight here, allowing for strong definition within the orchestra. This was probably the most enjoyable reading of the symphony I’ve heard; fresh, original and full of detail.

Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia © Chris Christodoulou
Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia
© Chris Christodoulou

The Symphony no. 2 in D major was taken with a similar musical intelligence. Although the brass contributions early on in the Adagio seemed a little less confident than in the previous work, the violins were on searing form and Adès again brought out a keen sense of textural detail in a frenetic, quasi-orgasmic conclusion to the movement where the brass was right back on form. A strong performance from the woodwind in the Larghetto, particularly in the lugubrious colour of the clarinets, in a reading of the movement which seemed not only to have the traditional sense of calm, but also a mild humour. The Scherzo was warmed by the mellow horns and the nimble effervescence of the strings, leading into a blistering fourth movement, string flourishes dispatched with flair, pacing taut and elegant.

This promises to be one of the most exciting Beethoven cycles of the decade, a dose of viagra to these familiar warhorses, as well as a chance to hear a range of Barry’s music performed by one of his greatest exponents. Simply unmissable!