Beethoven: Six Ecossaises, WoO 83
An die ferne Geliebte, op.98
In questa tomba obscura, WoO 133
Gerald Barry: Jabberwocky
Beethoven: Quintet in E-flat major, op.16
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Alex Wide (horn)
Timothy Rundle (oboe)
Joy Farrall (clarinet)
Sarah Burnett (bassoon)
Thomas Adès (piano)
As a whole, this concert proved a curious affair. It probably made more sense in the context of Thomas Adès’s series of Beethoven and Barry concerts with the Britten Sinfonia. The idea of a night off from the symphonic Beethoven to turn to chamber works was, in principle, a good one, but the sole Gerald Barry piece here seemed oddly out of place – and not in a productive, provocative way. Even the Beethoven pieces did not really seem to fit together especially well. A lovely performance of the op.16 Quintet nevertheless made the evening worthwhile.
The first half, however, put one in mind of that proverbial, clichéd curate’s egg. Adès walked onto the stage and apologetically informed us that two works had been added to the programme. Nothing wrong with that, although Beethoven hardly requires apology. The first was his Six Ecossaises, WoO 83, which many of us will recall from childhood piano lessons. Adès’s performance proved a curious mixture of the reticent – as though he would rather be playing the dances at home – and the heavy-handed. It became more flexible, to good effect, as it went on. Ultimately, though, little was made of these charming miniatures, whether individually or as a whole.
An die ferne Geliebte followed, Adès continuing to show a good deal of reticence, for most of the time very much the ‘accompanist’. Allan Clayton offered a sincere, verbally attentive performance until the final song, in which he sounded curiously harsh of tone, even hectoring. Still, there was a good deal to savour, for instance a true hint of sadness at the close of the fifth stanza of ‘Es kehret der Maien’. Adès seemed to come into his own as the cycle progressed. If he still came across as shadowing the singer at the beginning of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’, his shaping of a minor-mode phrase at the end of the third stanza – ‘Klagt ihr, Vöglein, meine Qual’, offered just the sort of touching insight I had hoped he would bring to the music of a composer with whom he is not so obviously associated. The transition to the next song, ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’ was also skilfully handled.
The second additional work was In questa tomba oscura, WoO 133, Beethoven’s setting of a poem by Giuseppe Carpani, amongst other things an early biographer of Haydn (and royalist spy!) This proved a duly haunting performance of a song whose text has a man visit the grave of his beloved, albeit from the standpoint of the latter, who reproaches her lover for not having thought more of her whilst she was alive. Perhaps again Adès might have brought out the piano part more strongly. Beethoven’s harmonies nevertheless told – and there is much to be said for understatement. Clayton clearly relished its challenges, heightening without overstating its curious drama.
‘Curious’ is certainly a word to be applied to Lewis Carroll, and to Gerald Barry, let alone to their combination in Jabberwocky, commissioned and premiered by Britten Sinfonia in 2012. The idea of performing its nonsense words in French and German translation is typically brilliant – and makes just as much (non)sense as the original. Clayton’s declamatory performance perhaps inevitably put one in mind of Barry’s brilliant operatic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. Alex Wide’s bizarre horn flourishes added another level to the studiously inexplicable entertainment unfolded. The song – should one call it a ‘song’? – seemed, almost in spite of itself, to grow, even to develop. And then it was over.
Additional wind players joined the ensemble after the interval for Beethoven’s Quintet for piano and wind instruments, op.16. It was the sheer gorgeousness of their sonorities that struck me first – and Beethoven at his most Mozartian (or, his tragedy, post-Mozartian). Balance with the piano here sounded much improved; there was greater impetus to the performance too. This is music that needs plenty of space, a grandeur of scale if you will, as well as chamber intimacy; it received both. The second movement was again well paced, its post-Mozartian sadnesses again given space to breathe, yet also to progress. Here, Adès could prove a little indulgent, his solo rubati occasionally puzzling; in concert, however, everything delighted. The hunting finale again summoned up Mozart’s ghost – as opposed to Haydn’s ebullience. Yet, quite rightly, not all was subtlety, not all was interiority. That balance and others were finely judged, in a performance of almost tiggerish enthusiasm.