Friday 23 September 2016

A tour de force: Barry's Beethoven

Barry meets Beethoven - Orchid Classics
Gerald Barry Beethoven, Schott & Sons, Mainz; Stephen Richardson, Chamber Choir Ireland, Crash Ensemble, Paul Hillier; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 16 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Unpredictable yet striking, Gerald Barry's response to Beethoven's words

This disc from Orchid Classics has at its core composer Gerald Barry's interest in his great predecessor Beethoven. The disc is bookended by two substantial works setting Beethoven's own words: Beethoven performed by bass Stephen Richardson and the Crash Ensemble conducted by Paul Hillier, and Schott  & Sons, Mainz performed by Stephen Richardson and Chamber Choir Ireland conducted by Paul Hiller. In between Chamber Choir Ireland and Paul Hillier perform O Lord, how vain, The coming of winter, and Long Time, and the Crash Ensemble performs First Sorrow.

Gerald Barry's music is a very particular, not to say acquired, taste with its regular rhythms, metricality, and sense of order, and yet alarming unpredictability. Barry seems to delight in doing what we might not expect, whether it is harmony that seems deliberately uneven, discontinuities in the logic or sudden lurches in the vocal line.

His mini-opera Beethoven was written in 2007 for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. It sets Beethoven's letters to his 'immortal beloved' in translations by Emily Anderson (from The Letters of Beethoven). With Stephen Richardson singing the vocal line, Barry's music creates a real sense of Beethoven the person, highly trenchant, unpredictable yet touching in his address to his beloved. But though the words are those of Beethoven the music is most definitely not, yet something of the energy which lights up the performance seems relevant. There is a Stravinskian energy to the instrumental writing, mixed in with Barry's on distinctive voice. I was rather uncertain of the work at first hearing, but it grew on me particularly the profoundly touching ending. And Stephen Richardson's performance is a tour de force, supported by Paul Hillier and the Crash Ensemble.

Schott & Sons, Mainz was written in 2009 for Chamber Choir Ireland and again the work sets Beethoven's letters in Emily Anderson's translations. This time, as the title hints, the correspondence comes from the end of Beethoven's life, between him and his publishers concerning Missa Solemnis and his Symphony No. 9. Paul Griffiths' booklet not talks about the work being more theatrical than Beethoven; it was written around the time of Barry's comic opera The Importance of Being Earnest. For me it is a rather austere and unnerving work. Perhaps lacking the instrumental support of the earlier work, the startling changes in musical direction and huge leaps rather stand out. But Stephen Richardson's performance is outstanding, the opening involving a series of scalar passages descending from high falsetto to basso profundo.

Oh Lord,, how vain was written in 1995 for Trinity College, Dublin. Barry sets words by Sir Philip Sidney in a short work which is rather austerely haunting. Though early, you can hear the familiar Barry processes at work here. Though different in texture, this is true of The Coming of Winter. Written in 1997 for the Cork International Choral Festival it sets a ninth century Irish Poem.

First Sorrow is Barry's fourth string quartet, written in 2006-7 for the Crash Ensemble. The instruments play without vibrato and though the title and subject matter come from a Kafka story about a circus trapeze artist, I found it rather reminded me of a viol consort re-invented for 21st century ears, until the final section when the ensemble plays a what is described as a chorale whilst singing Barry's setting of the words 'Twinkle twinkle little star'!

Long Time was written in 2012, again for Cork, and this time sets the opening of Proust's The Rememberance of Things Past. It is a rather strange piece, something of a game which works a C major scale very hard indeed.

The performances from Stephen Richardson, Chamber Choir Ireland, the Crash Ensemble and Paul Hillier are exemplary and invigorating. I still find Gerald Barry's music rather unnerving and frustrating. Not every piece on this disc works well for me, but the opening Beethoven is stunning and well worth acquiring the disc for.

Gerald Barry (born 1952) - Beethoven
Gerald Barry - Oh Lord, how vain
Gerald Barry - The Coming of Winter
Gerald Barry - First Sorrow
Gerald Barry - Long Time
Gerald Barry - Schott & Sons, Mainz
Stephen Richardson (bass)
Chamber Choir Ireland
Crash Ensemble
Paul Hillier (conductor)
Recorded Hall Hallows College Chapel, Drumcondra, Dublin, June 2012 and March 2013
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