Gerald Barry’s shock tactics were out and proud for the second concert of Thomas Adès’s Beethoven cycle/Barry retrospective with the Britten Sinfonia – the ‘Eroica’ Symphony prefaced by Barry’s Chevaux-de-frise, commissioned the BBC Proms and first-performed there in 1988 by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Robert Houlihan – so it’s a veteran shocker. The title refers to the spikes that impaled horses on cavalry charges and was written to commemorate the 400th-anniversary of the Spanish Armada, although the connection between the former and the latter is tenuous.
This is music that accepts no resistance as it bludgeons you into submission. Compelling in its monolithic, ugly way, the performance was greeted by whoops of visceral joy by some in the stalls-only audience (the upper levels of the Hall were closed), clearly persuaded by Barry’s freakish fluency and attention-grabbing histrionics. I wondered if the Britten Sinfonia, at probably the largest I’ve heard it, was big enough for the battering-ram impact the piece depends on, but it meant there was more interest to be gleaned from its precision and glittering orchestration – there are strong whiffs of Messiaen brilliance and Rite of Spring foot-stomping, and Barry gears its passages of noisy, obstinate stasis bulking up to more bursts of manic energy with all the conviction of someone who will be heard. Adès kept the rhythmic pressure high, but for all its uncompromising volume and hyperactivity, the floor was not wiped for me.
At least Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ would supply an element of surprise, but, oddly, this was not the case – even the horn’s famous false reprise in the first movement sounded contrived. The Britten Sinfonia adopted ‘period’ manners with modern instruments – a vibrato-lite string sound that kept within a narrow band of volume and pressure, rasping-style horns and trumpets and some stand-out, rather diva-ish woodwind solos, with Adès favouring a separation of sound that in the end became homogenous. Combined with a blustering tempo, the result was scrambled and the phrasing’s light-and-shade inevitably smoothed over. Visually, Adès’s conducting style includes a lot of youthful crouching and pouncing, which didn’t make any difference to the smooth, brisk progress of the ‘Funeral March’ and the music sagged after the middle section. The Finale’s fanfares and drums and Beethoven’s robust humour came into focus to ensure a blaze of triumph – over what, though, wasn’t so clear.