Gerald Barry once licked Beethoven’s carpet. At least, that’s what he told me, and I’m as sure as any interviewer of Gerald Barry can be that he wasn’t pulling my leg. While showing him round a museum, a guide pointed out said floor-covering. Whereupon — Barry being Barry — he was overcome by an urge for tangible, physical contact with a relic that had, after all, once been trodden by the Master. ‘So, once everyone was out the room, I got down and had a quick lick.’
And, if you can compare music to a physical sensation, the closing passages of Barry’s 1988 orchestral work Chevaux-de-Frise feel a bit like the childhood sensation of licking the carpet for a dare: a rippling, juddering sound in the whole orchestra, whose very horribleness has its own strangely compulsive sensual pleasure. Barry loves to set nerves jangling. The earlier part of the piece, in which the full orchestra blasts out blocky chords in a relentless onslaught, is like being pelted with metallic cubes. The sheer force of Chevaux-de-Frise appalled listeners when it was premièred at the 1988 Proms, but we’ve got to know Barry a bit better since then. This performance by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Barry’s friend and number one fan Thomas Adès, felt translucent, even playful, with Adès bringing out bouncy counter-rhythms and strewing little sprays of glockenspiel about the place like tinsel. It’s almost as if Barry has been teasing us the whole time.
Beethoven’s own Eroica symphony came next. The idea was Adès’s: over three years he’s pairing all of Beethoven’s symphonies with music by Barry. None of his own music, by the way — it’s an impressively sincere act of advocacy from a composer whose public persona can sometimes come across as self-important. You can sense the connection as he conducts. Barry and Beethoven each use massive formal power and rough-cut humour to channel dangerously violent forces. They’re the untamed id to the ego of Adès’s own music, with its ravishing surfaces and queasy awareness of tectonic plates starting to shift deep beneath the feet.
That’s what we got in Adès’s Eroica, a swift, iridescent account with opening chords that felt more like champagne corks popping than an explosive charge being detonated. The Britten Sinfonia were positively dancing, and their needlepoint precision at some truly astonishing speeds generated an energy that built like static electricity, ready for Adès to discharge as and when he felt the music’s structure demanded it: a blaze of brassy triumph at the peak of the Funeral March, and a bone-shuddering chain of dissonances at the climax of the first movement. Adès has described this moment as a ‘fissure’ in the surface of the symphony, and suddenly he dropped the elegant beat he’d used so far and stood there braced, stabbing repeatedly into the orchestra. Whatever your views on Adès’s own music, there’s something compelling about seeing a composer plug himself, in plain view, into the wellsprings of his own creativity.
Adès isn’t the first, of course. Sir Michael Tippett modelled his only Piano Concerto on Beethoven’s fourth, and it comes from the period in his career where Beethoven permeated his thinking most profoundly. This performance, by Steven Osborne and the CBSO (which commissioned and premièred the concerto in 1956) under its consistently thrilling new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, made that relationship explicit. Grazinyte-Tyla kept Tippett’s luminous orchestral writing under tight control while Osborne maintained the tensile strength of Tippett’s blossoming, sometimes tumultuous piano part with intense seriousness and a shining tone. It worked. Beethoven’s formal rigour underpins Tippett’s natural expansiveness, generating a kind of muscular ecstasy and liberating Tippett to do the one thing that Elgar said was impossible for an English composer — rhapsodise.
Performances like this are a necessary corrective for a composer whose stock has been severely undervalued for the entire concert-going lifetime of anyone aged under 50. In his later years, Sir Michael seems to have been regarded less as a grand old man of British music than an embarrassing uncle: the garish clothes; the hippy-dippy philosophy; those messy, down-with-the-kids late operas. But last year the brilliant young Heath Quartet won a Gramophone award with a complete Tippett cycle. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is beginning a retrospective of his symphonies, and Graham Vick’s recent production (also in Birmingham) of his once-derided 1977 opera The Ice Break struck home with an immediacy and compassion that I’ve yet to see matched by anything written in the 21st century. Is a Tippett reappraisal under way? God knows, we could use one. The world turns and it just won’t do, any more, to dismiss a composer who so uncompromisingly achieves his stated aim: to create, ‘in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, exuberant, generous beauty’.