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Britten Sinfonia, Barbican, London — irreverent, bracing

Britten Sinfonia, Barbican, London — irreverent, bracing

Britten Sinfonia, Barbican, London — irreverent, bracing
June 08
13:22 2017

The way a composer responds to the music of the past can be very revealing. Richard Strauss left us surprisingly classical recordings of Mozart and Beethoven. Britten’s performances of Bach and Mozart strove for clarity of sound. The enthusiasm of Boulez for Schoenberg, or of John Adams for Ravel, is a pointer to formative influences.

As both a pianist and a conductor, Thomas Adès has already displayed his appreciation of a wide range of music. To embark on a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, though, is a special challenge. What will be the scale of performance? Will the style be traditional or period? In what context will the symphonies be set?

Adès’s cycle with the Britten Sinfonia will be spread over three years at Saffron Hall in Essex and the Barbican. More important, he has chosen to place the symphonies alongside contemporary music — and not his own, but works by Gerald Barry, who will also be featured in supporting chamber music recitals, where Adès will double as pianist.

The first concert opened, appropriately enough, with Barry’s Beethoven, a setting from 2008 of Beethoven’s heartfelt letter to his mysterious “immortal beloved”. In the hands of some contemporary composers a tribute to a great predecessor might be an earnest affair, but Barry is not one of them. His scatty irreverence comes across like a thumb to the nose. The music is jaunty and allusive, culminating in a verse of “O come, all ye faithful”. The soloist, here the excellent Mark Stone, gets to warble amusingly in falsetto. Is it fun? Yes, up to a point. Once is definitely enough.

For the Beethoven, Adès announced his personality from the outset. He likes the swift speeds and bright, hard sounds of the period brigade, but in other ways these were conventional performances, not just employing the traditional instruments of the Britten Sinfonia, but with the orchestra bolstered by extra players. The Symphony No.1 was forceful, bracing, a touch charmless. The Symphony No.2 dug deeper and bowled along with tremendous impetus. Adès’s Beethoven cycle looks set to power through its three-year course with unstoppable momentum.

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