Prom 13: Barenboim’s Beethoven and Boulez Cycle Reaches its Penultimate Stage.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 13: Beethoven and Boulez:Michael Barenboim (violin), Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM computer music designer) Jérémie Henrot (IRCAM sound engineer), West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.7.2012 (CG)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F Major Op. 93 (1812)
Boulez: Anthèmes 2 (1997)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major Op. 92 (1811-1812)


Prom 13 -Photo Credit:BBC Chris Christodoulou_

Tonight it was the turn of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies to receive the Barenboim treatment. The previous night’s concert, showcasing the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (review), was a hard act to follow and I wondered, particularly, what he would make of the Eighth, often unjustly relegated to second rank in Beethoven’s output. In the event, Barenboim unsurprisingly opted mostly for “big.” This was a totally serious view, by which I don’t mean humourless; some might even describe it as old-fashioned because of the presence of such a large string section complete with eight double basses, but Barenboim is not interested in adopting a “period” approach to Beethoven’s symphonies. Early music diehards, please keep away and stop complaining! This is a man who came up through the ranks of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Stokowski and Barbirolli, who has lived in these symphonies for more years than most, and has something to say about them.

The first movement was tautly dramatic, with plenty of bluster but also ample grace. One aspect of Barenboim’s interpretations is his comprehensive grasp of form – one usually feels one is on an unstoppable journey from start to finish, and it was mostly the case here – Beethoven’s frequent contrasts of dynamics, often from one phrase to the next, never really getting in the way of the overall shape. In the second movement, often taken to be a parody of the recently invented metronome, Barenboim favoured brisker tempi than some; one might have wanted a little more wit, but there was some, and again there was plenty of drama and contrast. Some good humour again suffused the third movement, with its reinvention of the by-now obsolete minuet, and the well-known horn and clarinet solos in the trio section were beautifully done. The final movement was fast and furious, its complex form seeming straightforward in comparison to some more laboured views.

Another success, then! This symphony, a favourite of composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, really needs no apologies whatsoever. Among its more remarkable attributes is that Beethoven composed this predominantly sunny work when already seriously troubled by deafness, and other life events. Yet its optimism shines through, even in this somewhat darker, more serious reading, and he himself sometimes said he preferred it to his Seventh.

Most of the Boulez works during this series have been for solo instruments or small ensembles. Tonight it was left to Barenboim’s son Michael, who leads the orchestra, to give us Anthèmes 2, an extended piece for solo violin and electronics. The Royal Albert Hall is proving an unexpectedly marvelous space in which to appreciate Boulez’s small-scale works. Tonight we had the lone violinist on stage, surrounded by loudspeakers pinned high on the walls broadcasting music and effects devised by a sound designer and an engineer from IRCAM. Boulez says that in choosing the title he was influenced by his childhood memories of psalms sung during Holy Week – the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This often beautiful work enthralled for most of its twenty-five minutes, with antiphonal effects whizzing around the hall – sometimes there are masses of pizziccatti, sometimes lyrical lines, and sometimes aggressive scraping noises. It’s virtually impossible to describe – you have to hear it! Michael Barenboim deserves a Victoria Cross for his dedicated performance, and the audience should be congratulated for remaining so silent during a piece which eventually strained their powers of concentration. If in the end the piece outstayed its welcome, never mind – it was another experience not to be missed.

Back to Beethoven, and the mighty Seventh Symphony. This was another big performance, and if I wondered if things in general were perhaps a little on the hurried side, irrepressible energy was the other side of the coin. The dynamic contrasts now loved by Beethoven, and an essential ingredient in his middle and late styles, are very much in evidence here, and in the wrong hands they can feel overbearing. That I only began to feel that way towards the very end may be a tribute to Barenboim and his wonderful orchestra, and let’s not forget that commentators have found the finale the work of a complete madman! It wasn’t, of course, but that a kind of demonic fury marks passages in that movement is undeniable. Along with the opening of the FifthSymphony, the Ode to Joy, and the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony will be, to many, their best-loved of Beethoven pieces; it turns up all over the place, including (incongruously, to my taste) in the King’s Speech. Tonight it commenced with no pause after the first movement – a shame, I thought, because it seemed to diminish the movement’s initial effect. It was taken at a steady pace – slower than some, quicker than others, and probably just about right. The steady momentum soon made its mark, and that something so hackneyed could still feel fresh is another tribute to Barenboim. I have been conscious throughout these performances that despite his roots in a central European tradition, Barenboim’s performances do feel like reinventions in the very best sense. The scherzo was incredibly frenetic and fast – again it followed with no break – with the trio sections alternately touching and grand. And then, with precious little time to draw breath, that last movement – as fast as I’ve heard it, and positively galloping with enthusiasm. Plenty of youthful energy here! You would have to be a pretty moribund individual not to be thrilled by the horns and trumpets blasting away, the strings dashing around, and finally, by the sheer exuberance of it all. Terrific! Onward, now, to the Ninth.

Christopher Gunning