Prom 12: Barenboim’s Beethoven and Boulez Cycle Continues to Excite

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 12: Beethoven and Boulez: Guy Eshed, flute, Hassan Moataz El Molla, cello, West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.7.2012 (CG)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major ‘Pastoral’ (1802-1808)
Boulez: Mémoriale: (‘… explosante-fixe …’ Originel) (1971-1983)
Messagesquisse (1977)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1804-1808)

Prom 12: Photo Credit BBC-Chris Christodoulou

There is hope for Man! With music making of this order, made by young people from politically opposing groups, love and understanding is being spread around the world for all to see and hear. Barenboim’s work with Jewish and Palestinian musicians has been very well publicised, and it demonstrates that music – our common language – has the power to heal the most impossible rifts. Who could fail to be moved by that? These unmissable concerts are quite simply some of the most inspiring I’ve ever been privileged to attend.

The eight double basses spread impressively to the left behind the orchestra told us straight away that these were going to be big performances by a big orchestra. With Barenboim there is no pandering to early music tastes; no period instruments and no lack of vibrato in the strings. Yet the Pastoral floated gently into the world tonight, just as it should, and I was struck all over again by how revolutionary this work truly is. It is hailed as one of the first essays in programme music, although Beethoven said it has “more the expression of feeling than painting,” and we were treated to a day in the country complete with sparkling brooks, chilly winds, rain, a super-loud cuckoo, and a particularly violent storm. It was a journey full of poetry and drama, and a time to love natural things. Nobody had painted pictures or described feelings in music quite so vividly before. And nobody had used repetitive figures in quite the same way either; that Beethoven was a forerunner of composers as diverse as Sibelius and Steve Reich was brought home forcibly to me tonight.

Beethoven worked on the Fifth and Sixth symphonies simultaneously. The two works were even performed for the first time at the same concert, along with several other works of Beethoven, in 1808. In his late twenties, and at the height of his powers, there was seemingly nothing the genius couldn’t achieve, and his mind was taking him in many directions at once. The Fifth Symphony was no less revolutionary than the Sixth, but here is a work that is quite deliberately on an enormously grand scale for the time. Barenboim gave us a performance with plenty of rhythmic vitality and power. The first movement was taken at a perfect tempo for the famous rhythm to make its mark – restless but not hurried. The horns were magnificent, and the oboe’s unexpected solo in the recapitulation – a touch of genius – was meltingly done. There was much grace and humanity to admire from the cellos in the second movement, and in the closing stages of the third movement you could have heard a pin drop. This provided an excellent foil for the entry of the last movement, where the brass blew my head off! There were plenty of other touches to admire, too – all manner of delights in phrasing, and I’ve never heard the piccolo stand out quite so well at the end of the whole symphony.

In co-creating and working with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim has melded his group of impressive musicians into his very own instrument, which he plays with superb musicianship. The overall tone may not be quite as full-bloodied as, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or the Bavarian Radio Symphony, but it is certainly not lacking in power or expressiveness. The woodwinds make big sounds as if all were soloists, the brass are vibrant, the strings warm. The degree of understanding between conductor and orchestra allows Barenboim to adopt an extraordinary conducting style. Everything is obviously very well rehearsed, leaving Barenboim to conduct in his own highly unorthodox manner. Sometimes he stops beating altogether. Sometimes he’ll shape a particular phrase, while ignoring others. Sometimes he’ll simply waggle a finger. Sometimes there’s a baton, sometimes not. And so on – there’s hardly anything conventional about it. For the most part it works, presumably because of all that rehearsal, but sometimes it doesn’t quite. Ensemble is not always super-precise. By and large it doesn’t matter at all, because the energy and musicality of the performances carries us through the occasional blemish.

In the Boulez works, sandwiched by the Beethoven symphonies, Barenboim was more apt to beat time – the complexity of the music demands that he does so. I noticed this very different approach most noticeably in the performance of Dérive 2 at Prom 9, reviewed by Mark Berry.

The two Boulez works performed tonight are exquisitely beautiful pieces, and both received thoroughly confident performances. Mémoriale (‘… explosante-fixe …’ Originel), in which the outstanding soloist was Guy Eshed, has accompanying parts for three violins, two violas, a cello and two horns. The part for the flute is extremely florid with a lot of flutter-tongueing, and the other instruments pick out notes, quietly forming a halo around the flautist. You might think it wouldn’t work in the vast Royal Albert Hall – but it did, and, moreover, was spellbinding.

Messagesquisse (Messages/Quest) is another of Boulez’s lovely short pieces, this time featuring a solo cello, perfectly performed by Hassan Moataz El Molla, with six cellos contributing quiet notes until suddenly the music becomes absolutely frenetic. Once again, it’s brilliantly effective, and it’s something of a mystery why these and other pieces by Boulez have not become concert favourites yet. The members of the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra have shown that there’s absolutely nothing difficult for an audience to appreciate, and these young players take to the music as naturally as music from the standard repertory.

This is a happy orchestra. I know that because I talked to some of the musicians afterwards on the way to South Kensington station. They were full of fun and joie de vivre. They love their music director, and he loves them. And after last night, I love them all too.

Christopher Gunning