Viola Concerto Has World Premiere In Beethoven Frame

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Composer and conductor Thomas Adès is at work on a cycle of concert programs with the Britten Sinfonia that pair Beethoven and contemporary Irish composer Gerald Barry. (Photo © Chris Christodoulou)

LONDON – Over the past three years, Thomas Adès, the prominent British composer who enjoyed recent success in America with The Exterminating Angel at the Metropolitan Opera and Inferno at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has been adding his voice as conductor to the din of Beethoven symphony cycle recordings. The Britten Sinfonia plans to release its live performances of these symphonies under Adès in a CD box set in 2020, marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

Composer Gerald Barry (Betty Freeman, schott-music.com)

In concert Adès has paired Beethoven’s symphonies with music by the Irish composer Gerald Barry, who in turn has engaged with Beethoven in works such as The Importance of Being Earnest (2012), Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (2016),  and Beethoven (2008), a setting of the famous Immortal Beloved letter for bass and large mixed ensemble that Adès conducted earlier in this project.

In a recent installment on May 21 at the Barbican Centre in London, Adès programmed Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies with a new Viola Concerto by Barry commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia.

[The entire concert can be heard at the BBC Radio 3 website through June 19. Barry’s new concerto, performed by violist Lawrence Power, begins at the 37-minute mark.]

Adès effectively contrasted the disparate elements of the Beethoven symphonies. In the fourth movement of the Seventh, for instance, Adès propelled the orchestra to a fever pitch with resounding calls in the horns followed by a biting, anxious crescendo that suddenly dropped to a hush. In going for these dramatic shifts, the chamber orchestra sometimes lacked crispness and polish: There were intonation troubles among the strings in the second movement. Yet, what the musicians lacked in precision they provided in excitement; you could hear a pulse beating behind each phrase.

Adès is not technically dazzling as a conductor; he leads through broad gestures, sculpting lines, caressing contours, and underscoring harmonic changes such as those in the opening lines of the violas in the second movement.

Violist Lawrence Power was the soloist in the world premiere performance.

The performance of the Seventh set an astronomically high bar of excellence for Barry’s Viola Concerto reach. The concerto began with four crunchily dissonant chords in the brass that disintegrated into separate, rising arpeggios. After some percussion effects – a blow to a gong, some snare drum hits, a wobbling metal sheet – the soloist, Lawrence Power, played a meandering line that traversed the upper realm of his range. Following a restatement of the opening, Power executed several passages containing recurring intervals and scales that sounded like those you would find in an exercise book. While these ideas presented some quirks, the music repeated them several times too many, to generally dull effect.

Barry’s writing for the viola was decidedly unvirtuosic, even pointedly and comically amiss. A sense of wit came across in the ending, when the soloist intoned a lyrical melody over woodwind chords  and then whistled the same tune while aloofly looking around the hall. (Such “breaking of character” seems to be a preferred theatrical device of Barry’s, whose title figure in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground even conducts for a period.)

This ending, which contrasted with everything that preceded it, felt like the opening for an extended second movement. Indeed, the powerful orchestral unison that led into this section from the previous strengthened that feeling. But a heavy silence hung in the air after the final whistle; the piece stopped just when it appeared to be developing into something greater.

Closing with Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, Adès again sustained the underlying tension displayed in the Seventh: incredibly tight, like a taut copper wire tied between nails. Even so, the decision to end the concert with the Eighth, which is much shorter and musically less diverse than the Seventh, made the program feel front-heavy, causing one to wonder whether the Seventh would have provided the better conclusion.

Tim Diovanni is a music journalist from New York and a graduate student in musicology at the TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama.

The Britten Sinfonia’s Beethoven project led by Adès will be released as a CD box set in 2020. (© Chris Christodoulou)