Prom 18:The End of Barenboim’s Beethoven Cycle – Rather a Mixed Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 18: Beethoven: Anna Samuil (soprano), Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano), Michael König (tenor), René Pape (bass), National Youth Choir of Great Britain, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.7. 2012 (CC)

Beethoven:  Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, ‘Choral’

Barenboim has never really excelled in podium Beethoven. His piano excursions might be another matter (particularly his early cycle, but one should remember his live performances also), but he isn’t Furtwängler, although he’d like to be. It was to that conductor that this performance paid homage, while simultaneously proving that wannabe Wilhelms never cut it. Barenboim has been eloquent in words about how Furtwängler still moves us (and will ever continue to do so). Musically, however, Barenboim needs to rethink his attitude to this score.

Nevertheless, it must be quite an experience for this huge mass of young players, taken from arguably the two finest youth orchestras in the world, to experience this piece under this hugely experienced musician in the imposing space of the Royal Albert Hall. They gave the performance their all and, if occasional moments of dodgy ensemble reminded us of their age, it was essentially their commitment that carried the performance.

The first movement was daringly slow. There was certainly no hint of runs, and if the opening demisemiquaver from high strings was sloppy (the opening of the Scherzo was again compromised), there was no doubting the involvement of the young players. The first movement included moments of stillness that one normally did not get the time to savour. Gunshot timpani enlivened the Scherzo – the player used harder sticks than in the first movement – and there was the chance to languish in the simply superb, bucolic pipings of the principal oboe.

The soloists entered after the scherzo; Barenboim rightly waited for silence before the slow movement began. One could spot where rehearsal time had been spent just by listening to the unanimity of upper strings in long, fluid lines. Here it was the solo clarinet that shone among the woodwind. Only a wish for more depth of sound from the violins in their lower register reminded one that this was essentially a super-youth orchestra; while the radiant climax denied it. In the finale, the performance finally managed at least to find the slopes of this musical Everest rather than sit back and admire it from afar. Even then, it was not immediate. Was the opening tentative or did Barenboim want that? A long pause before the low string statement of the “Ode to joy” theme and a barely audible first statement did not augur well. Perhaps the players anticipated René Pape’s magisterial entrance, for the few bars preceding it contained a musical fire for which we had waited all evening. Pape was on amazing form, positively spitting out the “Feuer” (at “Feuertrunken”). Anna Samuil’s soprano oscillated between radiant and too tonally sharp, and Michael König (an experienced Wagnerian stepping in for Peter Seiffert) proved himself eminently musical. It was great to see and hear Waltraud Meier there, too. It was the chorus that stole the show, though, with impeccable control at “Ihr stürzt neider, Millionen”. They also excelled in the final statements of “Freude, schöne Götterfunken”. It was just a pity that the final orchestral bars were a mix of the jubilant and the chaotic.

This was a mixed event, to be sure. There was nothing else on the programme and an early (6:30pm) start meant an early bath. Furthermore, a sense of having been robbed not so much of more music but of a truly fulfilling reading of the work we had heard added to the feeling of incompletion.

Colin Clarke