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Listening to the interpretation of a really good composer in the music of his contemporaries is always interesting, listening to Adès’s of Beethoven is fascinating. It is also appropriate that the orchestra is a memorial to one of the few first-rate 20th century composers who ventured to conduct outside his own work. We have just lost the other: Penderecki.

The centrepiece of this set is, inevitably, Eroica. Adès approaches it with the sense of brisk clarity and lack of fuss that we have come to expect more from period instrument groups. This is chamber Beethoven, not lush grandeur, even if the orchestra is not particularly small. The last movement skips along with the brass adding to the exuberance, not portent. Adès returns to Beethoven’s sense that this symphony was celebration of old orders being challenged, not the lament for failed revolution that crossing out Napoleon’s name implied. This was, at three-quarters of an hour, by some way the longest symphony written up to 1806: new century, new purpose. The first two symphonies have a similar no-nonsense urgency. If this is the start of an Adès Beethoven cycle the rest will be worth waiting for.

There is a point pairing the Beethoven with Gerald Barry’s fierce works. Neither composer compromises to please the audience. The music is to be appreciated, not liked. Barry’s Piano Concerto is really a rasping orchestral assault on which the solo piano commentates. His setting of three of Beethoven’s letters to his ‘immortal beloved’ is a scena that veers from complaints about the road from Vienna to Esterhazy to outpourings of unconsummated love.

The inevitable comparison is with Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs Of A Mad King and Barry does make Beethoven sound just as demented. Mark Stone sails, complete with falsetto, through it convincingly. The Britten Sinfonia has substantially different personnel for each work but responds with equal precision – no mean feat because Adès never hangs around.

Simon Mundy Read the full review on Agora Classica


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