Symphonies 4, 5 & 6
The Conquest of Ireland
Lawrence Power Viola
Joshua Bloom Bass
Thomas Ades Conductor
Signum Classics SIGCD639
Composers conducting other composers’ work always adds a layer to our understanding of the music, perhaps because they are perfectly capable of taking the score apart and reworking it, rather like a formula one car designer. They rarely do, of course, when they are conducting unless they are making new arrangements, but they seem to have a way of emphasising different details and pointing to undiscovered aspects of orchestration than conductors who don’t write their own stuff.
Sadly we do not have recordings by the three greatest composer-conductors (Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler) and it is really sad that record companies in the last century only asked Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Elgar to direct their own works. It would have been wonderful to hear Elgar’s Brahms and Stravinsky’s Debussy. Tchaikovsky said he much preferred Mahler to tackle his music. The magnificent exceptions we have are Britten and Bernstein, superb if often controversial interpreters of their peers, so it is fitting that it is the orchestra that is named after Britten that one of the finest of our generation of composers has on hand for his cycle of Beethoven symphonies.
I have already reviewed the first three symphonies in Classical Music Magazine. I said there that Ades approaches Beethoven “with the sense of brisk clarity and lack of fuss that we have come to expect more from period instrument groups”. He takes the same line here too, almost opposite to Bernstein and far closer to Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Beethoven is presented as the last word in early romantic sturm und drang, the movement that added melodrama to classical structure, rather than making him carry all the weight of the nineteenth century when orchestras got big and pompous. Ades allows the fifth symphony to be truly dramatic but he does not slow it down or smudge its sharp edges. Like Mahler nearly a century later, who also in his sixth symphony employs hammer blows of fate, Beethoven presents fate as not continually battering, though his increasing deafness must have made it seem so all too often. Ades has a deft ear for the intricacies of the wind writing, the fleet agility of the violins. The fifth comes over as a natural continuation of the explorations in the fourth from two years earlier; a huge advance, yes, but not a sudden and startling break.
The real break comes between the fifth and the following three symphonies. In the Pastoral sixth the storm is splendid but the tension has eased. Unfortunately this is true of the performance itself, recorded two days after numbers four and five. The ensemble is not quite as taught, the subtleties a fraction less thought through. It is an able and efficient reading but I had been hoping for one that went beyond that and told me something about the work that others haven’t. Perhaps it is just that Ades and his players don’t have this symphony ingrained in the way it has to be to sound sublime, or maybe another day in Barbican Hall would have made a difference. This is a symphony about transitions, Beethoven using the moods of the countryside and its weather to be a metaphor for the continuous struggle for peace and contentment in a turbulent life. In Ades’s reading life is too easy to keep under control.
In the two boxes so far Ades has paired the Beethoven with works by Gerald Barry who, now approaching seventy, shares at least Beethoven’s determination to find his own path without worrying about the expectations of others. He is often thought of as a difficult composer but his wit is dry and he is not of that opinion. He writes about his very recent viola concerto, commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia, “the music ends with a melody. I was walking along the road the other day whistling it and suddenly a builder stood up from behind a wall with a grin and said, ‘great tune!’”. Along the way he (Barry, not the builder) explores the world of practice exercises, saying he finds them “liberating”. There is indeed, something of the rigours of the gym about this concerto, a steady plod with sudden bursts of energy. The whole orchestra gets a workout with a lot of weightlifting from the brass. The tune at the end is nicely whistled but very limited relief. The poor viola is rather left abandoned in the showers. The description by Gerald of Wales of the 12th century Norman conquest of Barry’s native Ireland is one of Gerald’s more disgraceful passages; depicting the Irish as “barbarous” and giving portraits of the bumptious invaders that are close to caricature. Gerald Barry sets it to music cleverly, veering from the vicious to appropriately ridiculous virility.