Barry Meets Beethoven
A welcome addition, this, to the Gerald Barry discography. Bookended by two works setting Beethoven’s letters, the disc also features four shorter works setting or otherwise referencing Proust, Kafka, Sir Philip Sydney and medieval Irish poetry (‘Barry and Letters’ might have been an equally fitting title).
Beethoven for bass and ensemble is a verbatim setting of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter. All is as you would expect from Barry: lines with too many words crammed in, the bass singing in falsetto, anti-word painting (emotionally pained words set to cheery music), abrupt changes of style (merry jaunt to woozy atonality to beautiful tonal adagietto) and so on.
It all works, as does Schott & Sons, Mainz for bass and chorus, which sets a series of Beethoven’s letters to his (and Barry’s) publisher. That’s because what might at first seem a tiresome musical irony in Barry’s settings – overtly emotional text set to banal music, banal text set to overtly dramatic music – reveals itself over time to be something more thoughtful and indeed humane. Showing Beethoven in all aspects, cantankerous as well as sympathetic, the two works present a different kind of heroism, that of the everyday. In his booklet-notes Paul Griffiths suggests that they comprise a Beethoven opera; although that’s overstated, there is a coherent portrait here.
The other works are mixed. The string quartet First Sorrow is desultory in a good sense, wandering through a modal landscape before breaking into a chorale on ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’. Long Time for chorus is desultory in a bad sense, setting the opening pages of Swann’s Way to C major scales. In terms of sound production, the long reverb of All Hallows Church, Dublin, at times blurs Barry’s sharp contours and renders words unintelligible. The performers, all long-standing Barry interpreters, are in fine form, Stephen Richardson’s commanding bass in particular standing out.