A classical concerto is sometimes described as a conversation between soloist and orchestra – in which case Gerald Barry’s Piano Concerto is a full-on slanging match. This 2012 work received its London premiere in a performance full of chutzpah and conviction from Nicolas Hodges, its original soloist, and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Thomas Adès, who have slotted a Barry mini-celebration into their current Beethoven symphony cycle.
In Barry’s words, his piece is more like a play or opera than a concerto. It’s a noisy dialogue between piano and the rest, the anatomy of an argument. It opens with a challenge from the brass – the trumpets are the ringleaders, the horns their sidekicks. The piano answers with self-assurance mixed with irritation and, while it might seem an unequal fight, the soloist has many weapons. These include not only force – at times the soloist hits clusters of notes with both forearms – but also smug certainty, which comes through in a passage that sounds almost like a five-finger exercise, travelling baldly up the keyboard and down again. You can almost hear the hot air – literally at times, when the wind machines on either side of the percussion section let rip.
Flippant, cool and histrionic, it’s typical Barry, and initially at least it’s fun to hear; but as response follows statement follows response it becomes wearing. This argument takes a long time to be fought through, and when at the end the piano is left alone repeating a little quiet figure to itself – a winner’s loneliness – it’s the first moment of real depth.
Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, which opened the concert, peaked in the slow movement, the violins spinning their melodies into almost impossibly long threads. The finale, however, was a little heavy-handed; there are passages in this movement that should perhaps be conducted with only a single eyebrow, and Adès’s energetic direction didn’t achieve that kind of nonchalance. His reading of No 5, however, was a winner – impatient yet disciplined, histrionic yet lyrical, it stressed the elements Beethoven and Barry share, and found resolution for all of them, ending the concert in triumphant exuberance.
- The Britten Sinfonia’s Beethoven/Barry concerts continue at the Barbican on 23 and 24 May. Box office: 020-7638 8891. Then at Theatre Royal, Norwich, 27 May.