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These much-anticipated recordings were made during the Britten Sinfonia's three-year Beethoven symphony project. Conductor Thomas Adès interleaves Beethoven’s masterworks with the audacious and sometimes explosive music of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Irish composer Gerald Barry. 'Adès makes you hear things with which you thought you were familiar as if they were completely new' (Tom Service in The Guardian).
Symphony No 1 in C major Op 21
Beethoven began work on his first symphony in earnest in 1799 and it received its premiere in Vienna in 1800—there could hardly be a more fitting turn-of-the-century work. It was performed alongside his Septet for wind instruments, his Piano Concerto No 2 and—in a significant nod to his predecessors—an excerpt from Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, and a symphony by Mozart. Beethoven’s intentions were clear: he intended to stake his claim as the rightful successor to the Viennese classical tradition. The reception at the symphony’s premiere was warm but not without criticism. A critic for the influential Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote the next day of the symphony’s ‘considerable art, novelty and wealth of ideas’, but added that it was flawed by ‘the excessive use of wind instruments, so that there was more Harmonie than orchestral music as a whole’. By 1806, perceptions had shifted and a prominent Viennese critic declared the work ‘a masterpiece’ one that ‘can justly be placed next to Mozart’s and Haydn’s.’
In many respects, the symphony sits happily alongside the works of Beethoven’s predecessors. Its form, scoring, thematicism—all of these features are essentially classical but … not quite. The scurrying opening theme in the first movement might have been written by Mozart on a particularly playful day, the just-too-fast Menuetto that is a scherzo in all but name could be the work of Haydn but … not quite. There is something sly and Beethovenian around almost every corner. Most notoriously, the symphony opens not with a stable tonic chord with which to set the foundations but with a dominant seventh—what’s more, it is in the ‘wrong key’ of F major. We have to wait until the onset of the Allegro proper before our home key is firmly established. And then there is the wind writing that so troubled the AMZ reviewer, colouring the symphony to striking effect and often used in stark antiphony with the strings. The finale has a tentative slow introduction, uncommon in the classical era and one that sets us off on the wrong foot again—is this to be a slow and sombre final movement? But as this tiny introduction unfurls into the spirited first theme, it reveals itself as just one of many Beethovenian jokes in this action-packed finale. The message from Beethoven in the first of his symphonies is loud and clear: here are my wares, now just wait until you hear what I can do with them.
Symphony No 2 in D major Op 36
By 1796, Beethoven was beginning to lose his hearing. Rather than a gradually diminishing ability to perceive sound, Beethoven was plagued by an intense form of tinnitus, in which a loud ringing in his ears obscured all external sounds. Over time, this malady worsened and began to manifest itself as deafness, and although the effects were erratic and varied from day to day, Beethoven was left with almost no hearing at all by 1816.
In 1802, while staying in the small village of Heiligenstadt and working on his second symphony, Beethoven determined to come to terms with his deafness. Setting down his thoughts in a letter to his brothers, now known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, he outlined his difficulties in dealing with such an affliction: ‘For six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible) … My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.’ Ultimately, however, he resolved to have patience and embrace whatever the future might hold for him: ‘Patience, they say, is what I must now choose for my guide, and I have done so. I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable Parcae to break the thread. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not; I am ready.’
The second symphony encapsulates this spirit of defiance and determination—even the traditional courtly Minuet is replaced with a fervent Scherzo, giving the work a perpetual sense of energetic propulsion. This feeling of purpose is announced in the very opening bars, with bold forte chords that set the tone, and lead the way to a sunny first theme. Although there are overtones of melancholy at times in the Larghetto, these are largely swept away by an overarching sense of calm and optimism. The defiant opening chords of the symphony make a return at the end of this slow movement, bursting through to usher away the minor key excursions and close the movement brightly in the dominant key of A major. After the cheerful Scherzo, full of vivid dynamic contrasts and elegant solo woodwind writing, the Finale drives the symphony towards a dazzling conclusion. Energy is drawn from the quirky opening offbeat figure, which underpins most of the thematic work of the movement, eventually leading to a drawn-out coda of some 150 bars. It was this prolonged conclusion that prompted one critic at the opening performance to describe the movement as ‘a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die’, though many may prefer to interpret it as evidence of Beethoven’s fiery and determined spirit.
Symphony No 3 in E flat major 'Eroica' Op 55
In 1802, Beethoven sent his publishers some new material for solo piano along with an accompanying note: in it, he declared that this was music composed in ‘a new manner’. one of which was the Variations and Fugue for piano, Op 35, now better known as the ‘Eroica’ variations—while they predate his symphony of the same name, they share both the key and theme of the symphony’s finale. This was the year after his second symphony and Beethoven’s thoughts were already turning to his third. There is no getting away from it—Beethoven’s third symphony marks a significant turning point, not just for his symphonic composition but for his style as a whole, and even for the language and history of western classical music. In its unprecedented length, technical demands and sweeping aesthetic ideals, it far exceeded any symphony ever composed before. With his first two symphonies Beethoven had challenged the public, pushing the boundaries of form and harmony while developing strands first glimpsed in the works of Haydn and Mozart, but the ambition of the ‘Eroica’ symphony is something else. The first movement alone is double the length of any composed by Mozart, and places a new emphasis on the importance of the development section: this is a symphony that aims to leave no thematic stone unturned, no tonal progressions untapped. The development is so long that it includes a complete new theme, and the wait for the return of the opening subject is so drawn out that one of the horns quietly pre-empts its re-entry, four bars too early, as though they can wait no longer. Then there is the matter of the elusive C sharp at the end of the first theme, swerving the tonality off course before it has even been properly established. Where did it spring from, then, this ‘new manner’? What separates the second symphony from the third? It is all-too-tempting to look at the date of the symphony’s composition, just a year after Beethoven penned his Heiligenstadt Testament and set out his determination to confront his deafness, resolving to ‘remain firm and endure’. The defiance of the ‘Eroica’, the weightiness of its themes, the grandeur of its huge symphonic arch, fit so neatly with this renewed sense of purpose that it is difficult to disentangle the two. But Beethoven gave away little about the music’s relation to his own personal state of mind. Instead, he dedicated the symphony to Napoleon, whose life and legacy is described over the course of its four movements: from the grand ambition and heroic struggles of the Allegro, through the projection of his death in the funereal Adagio, to the buoyant Scherzo and celebratory finale, which together sound a note of hope for change, the brilliant new aftermath of the revolution. As it was, however, Beethoven withdrew the dedication before publication upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, revising his opinion of a man he had idolised to a ‘tyrant’, no more than a ‘common mortal’. It was published in 1806 simply as the ‘Symphony Eroica … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’. And it is, truly, a heroic symphony. From the jolt of the opening chords to the clamour of the finale, with its furious strings and vibrant brass fanfares, it is a celebration of the symphony as much as it is the story of any man’s personal journey.
Gerald Barry Beethoven (2008)
To give a work a title as bold as Beethoven suggests a form of adulation, an attempt to follow on Beethoven’s legacy nearly two centuries after his death, but don’t be fooled. Gerald Barry is not your average composer. Barry grew up in County Clare in Ireland and went on to study with Stockhausen and Kagel in Cologne, from whom he learned to explore and revel in his long-held desire for flouting conventions. ‘Barry is always sober, but might as well always be drunk’, Kagel later said of his pupil. This is not to be dismissive of Barry’s music—quite the reverse: Barry’s contrariness is precisely what makes it so unique and so compelling. Having grown up in rural Ireland, with no immediate access to the concert hall, Barry attributes his wide-ranging influences to the radio, where the great classics were played alongside the banal and Barry was too young to recognise the difference. As a result, there are no borders in Barry’s music, no ‘no go’ areas; his music careers between the sublime and the ridiculous with carefree abandon.
Beethoven was composed for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 2008 and even its premise demonstrates Barry’s disregard for the rules. Composed for bass soloist and orchestral ensemble, Beethoven is a setting, a mini-opera perhaps, of Beethoven’s infamous letter to his ‘Immortal Beloved’, a passionate outpouring of love and regret to an unnamed woman, in which Beethoven laments the fact that ‘you are not entirely mine, and I am not entirely yours’. In Barry’s setting, the bass soloist narrates Beethoven’s letter, word for word, in an English translation by Anderson. But while the bass voice could very well be Beethoven’s, Barry makes no attempt to carry this verisimilitude through to the music, which is a far cry from the late classicism of Beethoven’s Vienna. Barry’s music is highly contemporary, hard-edged and flies between extremes. It is also stubbornly defiant (perhaps there are similarities with Beethoven here after all), so that where we expect softness we are met with a barrage of noise, where we expect melancholy we hear seemingly ill-placed comedy. For Barry, this is all about laying bare the conventions and mechanics of composition, and drawing the listener’s attention to gap between the two. As the letter opens, Beethoven’s tone is sombre: ‘My angel, my all, my own self. Only a few words today … what a useless waste of time, why this deep sorrow?’ but Barry’s music is almost comically jaunty. In the soloist’s voice we hear anger and resentment but the accompaniment marches forwards regardless, seemingly indifferent to his melancholy. ‘Can our love endure except through sacrifices?’ Beethoven asks, almost matter-of-factly, without any musical signs of the agony of his predicament. Later, Beethoven changes tack to describe his long and arduous journey to Teplitz (from where he writes), describing in detail the various logistics overcome. Here, Barry too alters the mood, though here he grants far more anguish and chromaticism to the details of the horses, the coach breakdown and their muddy route than that afforded to Beethoven’s words of desperate love and longing. But if Barry’s setting seems to lack empathy, this detachment also makes Beethoven’s words somehow more real. This is not music to idolise and romanticise Beethoven, but music to humanise him, to capture the plain and ugly reality of life made all the more truthful through its banality.
Gerald Barry Piano Concerto (2012)
When it was co-commissioned by the Bayerischer Rundfunk and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2012, Barry’s piano concerto was his first work to bear the title ‘concerto’. In anyone else’s hands the genre might have led to certain expectations: virtuosity, showmanship and lyrical splendour, perhaps. But Barry is not known for following convention and, true to form, his piano concerto is not a conventional concerto. There are the wind machines, for a start. Two giant wind machines—the kind you might find on a film set—that make up two thirds of the percussion section and which, apparently, require amplification to reach the deafening clamour that Barry’s music demands. Then there is the work’s form which, defying tradition once more, rejects the idea of a multi-movement work in favour of one giant, sprawling movement: no gaps, no delineations, no cadenzas. Neither is it even really a concerto in Barry’s mind; for him, the work is more akin to a ‘play or opera’.
If it is a piece of theatre, rather than a concerto, than there are only really two characters here: soloist and orchestra. In that sense, at least, the work has its roots in tradition. But this is not a concerto cast in black and white. Rather, Barry offers up a recourse to the antiphonal exchanges of the Baroque concerto, refracted and reinterpreted through his own unforgiving and rather brutalist lens. There is plenty of colour here but instead of the sweeping brushstrokes of romanticism, the lines blurred and muddied, Barry gives us an unforgiving cubist landscape, clean-cut and unwavering. And rather than establishing itself as a three-dimensional web of support around the soloist, the orchestra posits itself as the opposition. Throughout the whole concerto, the two barely play together at all. Instead, as in so much of Barry’s music, the score is carved into blocks, the soloist and orchestra butting up against one another in bold vertical lines. It is a conversation, but an abrasive one, the piano interjecting dense chromatic clusters in each of the orchestra’s rests, the orchestra responding with terse, unrelenting insistence. As all arguments must, this one reaches a crisis point too, with orchestra and soloist (and an orchestral piano, too, just for good measure) coming together for a cacophonous ‘Storm’ episode towards the concerto’s end. It is a blistering moment, over almost as quickly as it began, the full force of the orchestra unleashed and then spent, the conflict seemingly still unresolved.
Jo Kirkbride © 2020