Album review: Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Adès launch their Beethoven & Barry cycle with an outstanding first volume


Based on an intriguing three-season concert cycle by Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia, Signum Classics has initiated a series of CD releases featuring the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, alongside the music of Gerald Barry. Recorded at the Barbican Centre, London, these performances provide us with top-class music-making and fascinating testimony of creative programming and inspired dedication.

Last spring, a couple of weeks before the final installments of the 2017-19 cycle, Adès reflected the origins of the project, as a part of our thorough chat. 

”It was this wild idea, I wanted to do. I’ve done all these premieres of Gerald’s music, and I thought we’ve got to record them, though I never have time to record anything. And so we got thinking about how we could do this, and suddenly the idea was there. It was completely bananas! In the first year, nobody came at all, but who cares, it was fun. And it sort of built, so actually and they’re doing well now. I really enjoy doing the Beethoven. I won’t make a habit of it, but I’ve loved doing it and learned an awful lot. And doing Gerald’s older and newer work, it makes a lot of sense, I think, to do it. For me it makes sense. I think, now we’ve found a record company that will release it all as one thing, Barry and Beethoven together, and I’m really pleased about that.”

Now, a year-or-so later, the first volume of the series is out. The two-disc set features Beethoven’s first three symphonies as well as two pieces by Barry, namely the Piano Concerto (2012) and Beethoven (2008) for bass voice and ensemble. 

On disc one, the whole programme of the first Barbican concert from June 2017 is given more or less as-is. The disc opens with Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800), followed by Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-03). Barry’s Beethoven, a concert opener at the Barbican, now closes the disc, resulting in slight reshuffle of the original concert playlist.  

Beethoven’s witty introduction for his First Symphony, suggesting several keys before landing on its C major home, already points out the virtues of these performances. With Adès, the Britten Sinfonia sets us on an absolutely thrilling sonic journey. 

Two things stand out on these opening pars. First, there is that admirable clarity of sound, resulting from the dexterity of the small orchestral forces at play, enhanced by ever spot-on phrasing and balance. Second, one is swept away by the sheer energy, manifesting itself throughout the dynamic scale. 

The mounted tension of the adagio molto introduction is unleashed in full in the ensuing allegro con brio. As Beethoven sets forth to beat Haydn in his own game, a tremendous burst of musical joy ensues. The fabulous musicians of the Britten Sinfonia pass on the flamboyant spirit of the score to the listener, to an invigorating effect. 

The second movement, andante cantabile con moto lives up to its title. Adès sets the music in motion with an aptly chosen, lively tempo. As the musical fabric unravels at its natural pace, one is immersed into the brilliant sounding realm of the ensemble, filled with imaginative phrasing and luminous articulation. 

In the third movement, Beethoven pushes the menuetto to the edge with sharp rhythms and relentless sonic flow. In the trio, rapid string passages and marvellous woodwind phrases alternate with swift tutti passages. I’m not sure if I was able to draw a single breath during the profoundly entrancing performance. Be that as it may, by Adès and the Britten Sinfonia truly are one with this music. 

Another wondrously charged adagio introduction is heard before the concluding allegro molto e vivace. The orchestra and Adès close symphony with a brisk, joie de vivre take on finale.       

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Still, all things considered, it might be the stupendous performance of the Second Symphony that stands out as the absolute highlight of the album. I wonder if I have ever heard this symphony performed with such tremendous energy, clarity and commitment. 

From the very opening bars of the adagio on, Beethoven takes a quantum leap from the Haydnesque universe of his first symphonic endeavor to a hitherto unknown territories of the symphonic realm.

In terms of sound, the Second Symphony embraces a wider spectrum, in parallel with its broader emotional scale. This transformation is thoroughly reflected by the orchestra and Adès. 

Beethoven’s fantastic introduction builds up formidably to its two-bar climax, a haunting pre-echo of the Ninth Symphony (1822-24). In the allegro con brio, each and every instrumental group of the Britten Sinfonia shine out as the music unfolds within a well-balanced symphonic arc. With all its quirky accents and dynamic extremes, the movement is brought to a stirring conclusion.

The larghetto second movement is a feast of texture with its enchantingly interwoven sting and wind lines, ravishingly coloured by those ever-bright horns. Within this music, a dramatic narrative par excellence displays itself. 

The pace mounts abruptly with the brief scherzo. An assault of sharp rhythmic interjections and wild instrumental flow, there is the element of danger present within this wild ride. While the trio brings forth a change in the texture, there is no attempt to cool down the burning inner spirit of the music. 

In similar vein, the allegro molto finale flows unhindered through various soundscapes into its absorbing conclusion. As a whole, Adès and the Britten Sinfonia give us a spectacular take on the symphony, one with lasting enchantment.        

The first disc closes with Beethoven, Gerald Barry riveting setting of a selection of Beethoven’s letters in Emily Anderson’s English translation, including the famous lines written by the composer for his ”Immortal Beloved”. 

Scored for solo bass and an ensemble of fourteen musicians, the seventeen-minute piece is a captivating tableau featuring Beethoven’s musings on his everyday troubles of traveling, lodging and getting his letters sent in time, intermingled with contemplations of the endless complexities of love, and the eventual impossibility of a relationship. 

In his score, Barry avoids all the cheap tricks of allusion and quotation, and instead sets forth with his own, impeccable instrumental and vocal style. The music is more akin to Stravinsky’s neoclassical works than those of Beethoven, yet ever landing on Barry’s own, highly personal idiom. 

The solo part, fabulously performed by Mark Stone, unfolds in the manner of an extended recitative, not only conveying the message, but also re-enacting the very act of Beethoven’s letter-writing itself. 

The instrumental fabric is performed with incessant flow and intricate rhythmic detail, always in accord with the soloist. 

Disc two mixes together two pieces of utmost intensity. The recording of Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, Eroica (1802-04) comes from a performance recorded a couple of days after the performances of the first two symphonies. Barry’s Piano Concerto, in its turn, was caught on disc a year later, upon its London premiere in May 2018. 

One can only imagine what a revolution the first performance of Eroica must have been back in Vienna in April 1805. His unprecedented symphonic creation had its roots in a deep personal crisis, brought forth by his rapidly deteriorating hearing. As documented in the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was, in fact, composing himself out of suicide with Eroica.   

Beethoven’s Third Symphony is based on an extended four-movement formal outline. The opening movement is a vast sonata-allegro, with the most condensed introduction imaginable. For the movement is launched with two tutti chords, followed by the introduction of the main theme on the celli. 

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The first movement is a staggering symphonic canvas, with the whole orchestra engaged in vehement sonic play. Adès and the Britten Sinfonia set out at full throttle, resulting in one amazing performance. There is the wonderful paradox of a controlled free fall at play here, with ecstatic spontaneity joining hands with perfectly balanced formal scheme. 

In the marcia funebre, the orchestra and Adès plunge deep into the dark night of the soul. The music flickers at the threshold of desperation and disintegration, yet always managing to pull itself back together, to a shattering effect. 

Seldom, if ever, one gets to hear such deeply moving yet well-shaped performance of this music. For with this performance, every single detail is perfectly audible, without ever compromising with the emotional intensity inherent in the music. 

With the looming pitch-dark clouds of the funeral march finally lifted, the listener is engaged in the wildest of scherzos. With its signal-like main motive, the music dashes headlong into the open air alight with swift sunrise. The horns get their peak moment in the gorgeous trio, performed with utmost musicality. 

And thus we find ourselves in the midst of the fugal textures of the opening of the allegro molto finale. Soon the textures have been deployed across the full orchestra, and the finale proceeds steadfast towards its conclusion. 

The performance reaches zenith with the coda, a tour-de-force making all words fall short with its splendor. This is the most life-affirming Eroica imaginable!

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For the album conclusion the Britten Sinfonia is joined by pianist Nicolas Hodges to whom Barry has written his twenty-two-minute, single-movement Piano Concerto.

Scored for a large orchestra, including two wind machines and an orchestral piano, the concerto is a spectacular affair. The music is set in motion with a pronounced statement from winds and brass, followed by the entry of the solo piano. 

While there are superficial traces of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and various big bands, Barry’s music is, once again, unmistakably idiomatic. The full potential of the solo keyboard is unleashed, from cool, jazzy licks to massive chromatic clusters, occasionally enhanced by the orchestral piano. 

In terms of rhythm and phrasing, everything from pianola-like moto perpetuo to quasi-improvisatory passages gets an outing within this wonderful score.

The large orchestra is often used sectionally, resulting in richly varied soundscapes. Even though there are no separate movements, the sonic monolith of the concerto is cast into separate passages, varying in mood and texture.     

With Adès on the podium, the almost surreal orchestral fresco is painted with luscious colours by the Britten Sinfonia. Hodges ventures through the solo part with virtuosity and wit, providing an enthralling performance. The orchestra is well-interlocked with the soloist, with aligned rhythms, fluent phrasing and detailed balance. 

As a whole, this is a remarkable release in every respect. Aptly served by well-measured engineering by the Signum Classics team, these recordings are an absolute delight. Hopefully the next volumes are to be released as soon as possible. 


Britten Sinfonia

Thomas Adès, conductor


Nicolas Hodges, piano

Mark Stone, baritone


Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-03)

Gerald Barry: Beethoven (2008) for bass voice and ensemble

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ”Eroica” (1802-04)

Gerald Barry: Piano Concerto (2012)


Recorded at Barbican Centre, London, 2-6 June 2017 and 22 May 2018 (Barry Piano Concerto)

Signum Classics SIGCD616 (2020), 2 CDs

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Chris Christodoulou

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