Thomas Adès conducts Britten Sinfonia - Brighton Festival review

Thomas Ades
Thomas Ades

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Brighton Festival 2019 – Thomas Adès conducts Britten Sinfonia in their 2017-2020 Beethoven Symphony Cycle concert series – No 1 in C Op21 and No 2 in D Op 36, preceded by Namensfeier Overture Op115. Theatre Royal Brighton, Monday 20 May (2.30pm).

Special Festival ingredients: one of Britain’s hottest classical music properties with one of Britain’s more arresting orchestras in a visit during their hailed concert cycle. Mix in the intrigue of being staged not in a concert hall but a speech-oriented theatre acoustic, and secondly the presence of recording microphones.

Maybe unintended consequence: the impression of Arturo Toscanini reincarnated as a stock car racing driver on rocket fuel.

(Warning: irreverence follows)

While motor racing tends to roar its way towards a watching-paint-dry spectator experience, of cars driven round and round by star champions, the drone oscillating within a relatively narrow musical pitch, first check for any partisan people nearby, then dare to think minimalism.

Beethoven in full cry, rough and ready in appearance, lacking in advertisers’ logos, is much more interesting and rewarding, and fun. Music played on his symphony orchestra creates the far more entertaining sounds of skidding, swerving, braking, accelerating, misfiring, near-colliding, spurts through gaps and headlong tears for the finishing line.

Beethoven is very serious about the whole thing and so need to be his interpreters. In these first two of his symphonies, there are issues to resolve, anticipation to create, approaches to revolutionise, games to play with his audience in the great Haydn tradition, a future to be hinted at.

His purposes require a rather more sophisticated vehicle, which is why he always wins the race. And his driver tonight, the forty-something composer, pianist and conductor Thomas Adès, won it by a street. Race investigators suspect he may have been driving a full-scale Ferrari.

The Italian, Toscanini, excited his post-war audiences and grabbed interpretational attention and admiration with speed. Adès at times seemed as though in a Goodwood Vintage Car Revival dressed as the old maestro. He took his 48-piece Britten Sinfonia engine to the edges of control and accuracy through some extreme Scherzo and Finale movement tempi, and all honour to his racing team players for surviving intact.

At the final applause from a thrilled audience, while the orchestra stood smiling, race team leader Thomas Gould (1st violin), stayed on his chair gesticulating that the limelight should entirely be on Adès. He in particular had looked like he was enjoying the white-knuckle ride.

With live recording of their Beethoven Cycle concerts, this one included**, my guess is that the dry Theatre Royal was welcomed by producers able to shape the final recorded sound free of any unwanted or awkward concert hall acoustical behaviour or colouring.

But to audience who frequent only concert halls or only ever listen to CDs, the compressed, scarcely resonant or reverberant sound will have been a shock. Yet it reward of exposing the inner orchestral detail that tends to be smoothed over by concert hall sound. A bit like looking at an openly-exposed stock car engine in all its shuddering and spitting detail and parts, instead of a smoothly concealing Formula 1 car bonnet.

This tonight came Beethoven in the raw. Undiverted or infiltrated by his own thoughts of distant or unrequited loves – or of his maker – declaring his intent and early genius, to a world that damn well owed him a living. No pastorals, eroicas, fate door-knocks or joy odes, just his pure music, ahead of Symphony Nos 4 and 8.

There was enterprise and guile in opening this early Beethoven concert with one of his late overtures. Namensfeier, rarely chosen, significantly unfamiliar, one of only two with no narrative or theatrical purpose, relying entirely on its energy and compositional working-out, was an intelligent ground-preparation for both performers and audience.

Into the two Symphonies, and this raw Beethoven was delivered taut, sharp, crisp, almost forensically focused, meticulously voiced, often fiercely accented, tersely argued, definitely uncut-glass, played on modern instruments but ‘post-modernly’ without pervasive string vibrato.

On a stage all black in backdrape and orchestral uniform, hand and face flesh, hair and instruments the only colour, Adès towered – his movements incisive and decisive, upper limbs thrusting, baton wrist flicking, arms sometimes flailing, always urging.

Energy and textural assertion overlorded sheer exuberance as Adès sped No 1 out of its blocks. The second movement, initially Mozartian in its sudden composure, excelled in and enjoyed its conversational exchange of closely detailed thought and final agreement. The minuet arrived like quicksilver, barely slowing for a Trio majoring on smooth rather than pointed rhythmic woodwind utterance.

The Scherzo’s return, urgent and gripping, rushing to its finish, cemented the intense atmosphere for the rest of the concert. After Beethoven darted looks from behind the wings to pre-check the ground in the opening chords, the Finale was hurled into the rush hour and as Adès drove his train went into headlong non-stop mode, there was a feeling of country dance flaring up into a whirling hint of No 7.

In No 2, its first-movement tension screwed tight throughout, Adès’ coda – glorious music from the ‘Great Beethoven Orchestral Moments Top 10’ – turned to white heat and the violins bit, scalded and eventually screamed their way in through the home front door. The slower movement spoke pithily, stripped of veneer, arguably also of its grace, and its coda subliminally, insightfully by Adès, reminded of the previous moment’s unrest, while also warning of the coming unsettling Scherzo.

This was fast, het-up, almost crazed, ranting around a vehement Trio in which lightning and thunder (more Adès insight?) foreswore the storm of No 6. After this, the finale seemed at times as though in a panic. No time for finesse in the strings and although the busy winds were a frequent, sweet and smooth foil, all escalated into a coda of almost hysterical pace in which the heavyweights prevailed.

The lauding this Adès and Britten Sinfonia Symphony Cycle has received, talk of refreshment of music we thought we fully knew, leaves Adès to continue as he set out, concert after concert in this busy tour phase. Along his high-speed rails the danger is of the train running away and leaving just the one lasting impression of readings which do succeed in presenting the music startlingly unglazed.

Richard Amey

**The modern way is at the end of the cycle to cherry pick the best movements from along the way and compile into satisfying hybrids for the final CD offering, unless specific concerts completely hit the zone and fulfil all the artistic criteria.