Stephen Richardson performs Barry’s Choral Interpretations of Beethoven’s Letters

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LABELS: Orchid Classics
WORKS: Beethoven; O Lord, how vain; The Coming of Winter; First Sorrow; Long Time; Schott & Sons, Mainz
PERFORMER: Stephen Richardson (bass); Chamber Choir Ireland; Crash Ensemble/Paul Hillier


If you’ve heard the chunterings of the bass Lady Bracknell in Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, you’ll have some idea of what to expect here. But only up to a point: Barry is never predictable for long, veering off at alarming tangents, and unfathomable in the way he chooses to set his texts. The two monodramas based on Beethoven’s letters here always avoid the obvious. The first, simply titled Beethoven, starts with pure Stravinsky muscle-pumping – there’s great writing for trumpet throughout – and even in one of its interludes quotes not Beethoven but a lesser composer, Henri Bertini. Why ‘O come all ye faithful’ appears at the deadpan, hilarious close is also anyone’s guess.


Likewise, Schott and Sons, Mainz avoids thematic reference to Beethoven’s late masterpieces mentioned in his letters to that firm; instead, after the dedication, there’s a haunting little hummed choral anthem of Barry’s own invention. And the composer’s imminent mortality turns the later stages deadly and – as ever – inventively serious. Superb work here from Chamber Choir Ireland supporting the verbally clear Stephen Richardson, and they make much of Barry’s own peculiar minimalism in the choral anthems (the opening of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time set to nothing but scales). First Sorrow, Barry’s Fourth String Quartet, is doggedly two-part at first, but it also surprises. Full marks to everyone, including the Crash Ensemble, conductor Paul Hillier and the recording team. David Nice