Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades

Barbican Hall, 6th June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Chevaux-de-frise
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major. Op 55 “Eroica”

That Beethoven eh. Too busy being a genius to get a decent haircut. Another reason why he is my sort of bloke.

I have raved about the other two concerts in this cycle, Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** and Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall ***** so I suspect you won’t be too surprised if I do the same again here. Whilst I am not sure I would want my Eroica to always sound this way it was, as with the performances of Symphonies 1 and 2, an exhilarating restatement of this mighty work.

First though the Gerard Barry piece that Thomas Ades chose to pair with it. Apparently this got a kicking when it premiered at the Proms in 1988. I don’t know why. Yes it is loud, sometimes excruciatingly so, but it is hardly difficult. It was inspired by the destruction of the C16 Spanish Armada off the west coast of Barry’s native Ireland. and the title refers to those pointy wooden array of fixed spears that were used on battlefields to defend against cavalry attacks. You educated types will also know that it refers to a spiky piece of prose deliberately inserted by an author to unsettle you.

So Mr Barry didn’t hide his intentions. The piece begins and continues with a wall of sound from strings, then brass and woodwinds and then the whole shebang, and pretty much continues in this vein for most of the first ten minutes. There are then some “softer” interludes and a glockenspiel (I think) chimes in which offers the only percussive influence (thus making the noise-fest more interesting I think). The chords are comprised largely of crotchets and quavers, the score is marked “spikily” or “brutally” and the effect is of pounding dissonant rhythms. I loved it and I suspect that anyone who has been near any form of “loud” rock music from any genre would feel the same way.

Having located the inner Napalm Death in the Britten Sinfonia Mr Ades seemed keen to channel this into the Beethoven symphony. From the off we were treated to fast tempi which is my preferred default setting (one of my favoured Beethoven cycle recordings is John Eliot Gardiner’s with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique which will hearld a few sniggers from classical buffs). Minimal vibrato and a clear, brilliant sound really pumped up the score which, as any fool knows, is a work of unparalleled genius. (I know the “great male genius” narrative of artistic endeavour is bullsh*t but Beethoven just was, so yah boo sucks to you).

It was just really exciting though in places it did threaten to career out of control. Yet the detail of the phrasing and the dynamic breadth more than compensated. This will sound cliched but it really did feel like the whole score had been given a thorough cleansing, like a restored old master.

I cannot recommend this cycle highly enough based on the three symphonies so far. Thomas Ades and the Britten Sinfonia will be back in May next year to take on 4. 5 and 6. Please go along. If you have never been to a classical concert and don’t think it is for you make this your debut. Get a decent recording of these pieces, shove them on your IPhone, wait for the movements to shuffle through a few times to get to know the tunes, then take the time to listen to the whole thing one evening (phone off). This will mean you are tooled up for the real thing come next May. Then sit back and wait for your socks to be blown off.

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone

Barbican Hall, 2nd June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Beethoven
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 1 in C Major, Op 21
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 2 in D, Op 36

After the chamber concert earlier in the week reviewed here – Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** – I was really looking forward to this, the first of the cycle of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Thomas Ades with the Britten Sinfonia. I wasn’t disappointed. It was outstanding.

The first thing to say is that the Hall was half-empty. This is a real shame as I think Mr Ades and the BS are outstanding advocates for these masterpieces. Remember this is early Beethoven and these two symphonies rarely get performed. If this is what they do with these pieces then goodness knows what surprises they will spring on us in rest of the cycle with the classic symphonies. The Eroica, No 3, the symphony that changed Western art music, is up next week, 6th June, and I really urge you to take the plunge.

I suppose it is possible that some are trepidatious about Mr Ades pairing Beethoven with Gerald Barry. With the Eroica comes Barry’s Chevaux de Frise which I gather is a full on noise-fest. Right up my strasse but maybe not for the twinset and pearls brigade. But for you young hipsters a perfect bragging opportunity surely.

In this concert the first two symphonies were paired with Mr Barry’s eponymous paean to the great man himself. This takes Beethoven’s famous letters to his “Immortal Beloved” and sets them to music, with a 15 strong band and a bass soloist. Well sort of sets them as the tone of the music often seems to bear no relationship to the overblown prose of Beethoven. It does sort of sound a bit like Mr Barry is taking the p*ss to me, but not in a malicious way, but in a gently affirming way. There is the typical Stravinsky-ian rhythmic propulsion that I now understand is typical of Mr Barry’s music, but this is interspersed with much tenderer tunes. It has the full quota of dissonance but again this seemed less jarring than in his other works. Mark Stone sang, or more precisely, recited the English translation of the text without alteration and with the occasional falsetto shift in character.

The whole effect of the piece then is to strip away the “romantic’ in Beethoven’s words and to emphasise the prosaic. And by doing so it becomes a way of humanising the great man and working against all the mythic baggage that surrounds him. And it ends with a chorale based on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” that silly old me found quite moving. I still have a strong memory of visiting Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven wrote the sad letters to his brothers and composed the second symphony, many, many years ago on a miserable, chilly winter’s day and this all came flooding back. Anyway I thought this piece was fantastic.

So then we came to the real McCoy. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this was firmly modern in sound bar the timpani (remember despite being 40 strong here this is nominally a chamber orchestra). Yet the full on, pacey tempos could not be more period if they tried. This for me is the ideal combination. I get the power in these still largely Classical compositions but with all of the sparkly brightness. It also means that the Beethovian trademarks – the look at clever old me “wrong key” opening, the blasting winds and the “just kidding” slow opening to the final movement of the first symphony – and the properly pumped up scherzo and stirring “I’m still standing” repeated tunes of the second symphony – are as fresh as a daisy.

And Mr Ades is an energetic conductor to say the least. Which definitely spills over into the BS’s playing. If you like your Beethoven old-skool gushy romantic probably best to steer clear. If you like your Beethoven with driving rhythms and shapely muscle then this is for you.

Will let you know how the Eroica pans out but I suspect I will like it. After all, after number seven, which is probably the greatest musical achievement ever, its my fave.

BTW in the interests of completeness I should mention another leg of this week’s Beethoven love-in. I went to hear Bernard Haitink (the world’s greatest living conductor) guide the LSO through the third piano concerto with Mitsuko Uchida (one of the world’s greatest living pianists) as soloist. This time the Barbican Hall was full to the rafters. No great surprise. Obviously it was stunning. Mr Haitink doesn’t get up to much on the podium – never has done as I recall – but here is simply no-one better able at phrasing this or any other music. Ms Uchida puts a bit more effort in but that still doesn’t prepare you for the sheer power of her Beethoven playing. It is technically brilliant but it just floors you when she comes in after the long orchestral opening, in the cadenza, and the flourish ahead of the bonkers last movement finale. And by getting perilously close to shutting up shop completely the spaces between the notes in the slow movement were exquisite. She doesn’t do all this diva-ish showing off and never puts herself before the thread of the music. Anyway you get the picture. Can’t think of  a better combination than this soloist with this conductor with this orchestra with this composer. The prolonged applause suggested most agreed with me.

No review as I didn’t stay for the Bruckner. That to me is just masochism.

 

 

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review *****

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Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry, Britten Sinfonia

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th May 2017

  • Beethoven – Septet in E Flat Major Op 20
  • Gerald Barry – Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park
  • Beethoven – Piano Trio in E Flat Op 70/2

I’m guessing that composer heaven is a miserable place. All those blokes (the world of classical composition, at least until the mid C20 is, like pretty much every other sphere of human activity, a damning indictment of the patriarchy), sitting at their pianos with a rictus grin unable to conceal their seething of the one bloke who wears a permanently beatific smile. He is called Ludwig van Beethoven and he is smiling to himself (cast that famous scowling portrait of him out of your mind) because he knows he is better, way better, at his job that all the rest of them. And they too know it.

I suppose it is possible to spend a life without Beethoven. I might have done and I know plenty of people who do. And I realise how much of a pretentious pr*ck I sound for saying it. And that I am implicitly asserting the cultural supremacy of Western and “high” art by doing so. This is not my intention. The thing is, his music is just so very, very good. Pulse, beat, rhythm, melody, harmony all perfectly laid out. To quote the zeitgeist there is always an “emotional journey” in our Ludwig’s pieces, sometimes trivial, sometimes on a grand scale. But more importantly there is musical logic. I can’t read music and don’t really understand the language. But I know that this music is, at its best, perfect and can conjure up that sensation of “nothing else mattering but the music” like nothing else.

So I was looking forward to my week of concert going which was basically just one long Ludwig love-in, largely, though not exclusively, in the company of Thomas Ades, and his fellow contemporary composer, Gerald Barry. Mr Barry is a self-confessed Beethoven nut. Mr Ades, whose work betrays his chameleon-like snaffling of the history of Western art music culture, is also a champion, as revealed by this three year cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Britten Sinfonia, which has just kicked off. I really like Mr Ades as a composer, witness my review of the Exterminating Angel below. But now I have been bowled over by his skill as a performer and conductor as well.

The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

This chamber concert ahead of the symphonies, kicked off with Beethoven’s Septet. Old Ludwig gave this a right pasting in his life-time as he considered it a bit of a trifle compared to all his later “serious” stuff. Far be it from me to disagree but I think he was wrong on this. It certainly easy on the ear with six movements all based on dance forms, and it unmistakably still Classical, but it is still full to the brim with ideas. Direction is provided by the solo violin and here Thomas Gould was excellent, supple, yet still candid, in his playing.

Mr Ades and Mr Barry then took to the floor for a two piano version of Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park, Mr Barry’s first opera. I have seen performances of his last two operas, The Importance of Being Earnest and Alice’s Adventures Underground (semi-staged and conducted by …. one Thomas Ades), and I bloody loved ’em. Anyone who thinks contemporary opera isn’t for them should see Importance – it is a hoot.

Anyway this piano piece delivers excerpts (literally) from his earlier opera which showcase his rhythmic power and use of comfortable dissonances contrasted with quieter, simpler, almost lyrical passages. It is this bold rhythmic attack that I like as well as the bawdy humour that seems to break out. Mr Ades composes in a similar vein even if the influences are a little more diverse. Their music doesn’t require a PhD to grasp and there is far less of that long, drawn-out, slow movement, plinky-plonky, atonal musing that has turned me off other contemporary composers. I can’t call it easy listening, but it is easy to understand. So seeing them bash the bejesus out of the pianos was a joy.

In the final piano trio, Mr Ades was joined by Thomas Gould on violin and Caroline Deamley on the cello. Op 70 no 2 is a little less well-known that no 1 the “Ghost”, but I prefer it. By now Beethoven was well and truly in his brave new world as he starts shifting us all over the place in terms of mood and tempo but still basically serving up a robust structure amidst all the “how did he do that moments”. Now Mr Ades is a big fella and he packs a punch (as the previous piece had shown) and he did’t hold back here. This contrasted with the more measured reading of violin and cello to great effect (for me if maybe not the purist). But this power is what I think Ludwig heard. There is a perfectly formed skeleton, there is flesh on these bones, and there are pleasing, delicate features. But for me the one abiding characteristic of Beethoven is muscle. And this performance suggests Mr Ades agrees.

I think I am going to like the symphonies.

 

 

The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

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The Exterminating Angel

Royal Opera House, 24th April 2017

Without a shadow of a doubt the third act of Thomas Ades’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is the most powerful piece of musical theatre that I have ever seen. And it is up there with the best theatre I have ever seen. Oh and Acts 1 and 2 aren’t half bad either.

This is really, really good. There are times when the interplay of Mr Ades’s hugely inventive score, the excellent singing (to my ears) across the ensemble, the monumental set design and the brilliantly conceived lighting (and other visual trickery) left me open-mouthed in astonishment. I would say speechless, but clearly even this pleb knows that goes with the opera house territory. I was stuck up in the cheap seats, so goodness knows what it was like downstairs. If the characters were caught up in some sort of “enchantment” from which they could not seemingly escape and for which there was no rational explanation, well so was I.

The score is brilliant. I am no expert and so have no insight into the musical structures. The experts can walk you through that. But I can hear how Mr Ades’s magpie-like approach to the entire history of art music (and beyond that into the religious music which preceded it) creates a sound world which not just supports the drama but possesses it. I could hear Britten, Shostakovich (the menacing drum beat at the end of Act 1) and Nielsen, I could hear Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartok. There are plenty of more romantic tinges and Wagnerian blasts. There are strained Straussian (J whizzed up with R) waltz motifs which keep recurring. There are C12 songs and Jewish poetry. There is some jazzy, distorted piano, there is a bit of flamenco. And there is a glorious chaconne like structure as we move towards a resolution that isn’t really a resolution at the end. There’s is a constant swirl of sometimes lovely, if bitty, melody and big, hairy rhythmic dissonance. And plenty of percussion and low woodwind which is a good thing. Blimey it’s all there, but there is still a clear compositional voice at work here so it is not the dog’s breakfast that it might be in other hands. But subtle (with one or two rare exceptions) it ain’t – and that’s what I loved.

And then there is the eerie presence of the ondes martenot, signifying the unexplained Exterminating Angel. I am guessing this is a tricky customer to play (I have heard it in a Turangalila, but not sure who was playing, as well as in the hands of Jonny Greenwood in the live soundtrack to There Will Be Blood – that reminds me must get on to my top 10 films). Here, in the hands of Cynthia Millar, it was perfect. Not overly involved to avoid sounding like the soundtrack to a dodgy episode of Tales of the Unexpected, but enough to suggest an other-worldly take on events. The use of bells to conjure up deeper forces is also a winner. And the solo piano parts are inspired.

And there are arias of a sort. memorably for me from Audrey Lina’s coloratura Letitia at the end, (based on the C12 Jewish song), from Sally Matthews’s Silvia de Avila whilst cuddling a dead sheep (not a phrase you hear too often) and from countertenor Iestyn Davies as Francisco de Avila as he gets wound up about the size of spoons (I kid you not). And the duet from Eduardo (Ed Lyon) and Beatriz (Sophie Bevan) is spell binding. Oh yes and the chorals are overwhelming.

Now I admit that this score is not going to wash over you, and will likely put you on edge, but that is the point of the drama. Thomas Ades and his librettist, Tom Cairns, who is also the director here, and clearly a talented chap as well, have taken Bunuel’s enigmatic film and drawn out most of its essences. They have crunched down the number of characters but it is still a big crew. They turn up for the dinner party after the night at the opera (cue a few goodish gags), find themselves unable to leave for no clear reason, descend into a still sometimes polite savagery, then leave but don’t really escape. But why all this happens is unexplained. Bunuel famously couldn’t or wouldn’t explain it. Why should he? Ades and Cairns incorporate the surrealist absurdity (sheep, bear, creeping hand, gushing water), capture the empty decadent entitlement of its bourgeois protagonists and reveal the thin veil between society and anarchy. It maybe comes across as more mysterious and intense, rather than slyly comic and satirical when compared to the film, but this reflects the incorporation of music (there is no soundtrack in Bunuel’s art films) and the psychological insight into the characters offered through explanatory arias. That’s the point of opera after all.

it is another belter of a set from Hildegard Bechtler after her recent triumphs at the Almeida. She loves a bit of revolve but here we also get a gigantic arch which separates the deco-ish interior where the dinner party guests are “trapped” and the exterior world of hoi-polloi and authority. There is also a nice whiff of Goya for me in the visual effect from having a lot of people on stage a lot of the time and in the lighting colour palettes.

So all up this is outstanding. I don’t like most opera and wouldn’t willingly slash out 120 quid for a decent seat at Covent Garden. It isn’t a relaxed evening and you won’t come out humming. Whilst there is wild variety in the score, there is less in the pace and tone of the drama. Stuff doesn’t get resolved. It also probably helps if you have an eclectic musical taste. But if you want a sustained and heightened musical and theatrical experience, have the means and have a reasonable expectation about what you might be letting yourself in for, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Oh and make sure you pitch up to one of Mr Ades’s Beethoven symphony conducting stints at the Barbican with the Britten Sinfonia. This musical brain applied to the greatest music ever written. Sure fire winner.