Barenboim’s Beethoven: Ending on the Right Note

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 30.1.2012 (SM)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

No conductor alive today has been quite as controversial as Daniel Barenboim. His political positions vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian question have made him a pariah in most of the countries from which members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra come: Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and others. To what degree these political and philosophical issues affect his musical world might be opaque, but its ambience was part of this performance.

The extra-musical metadata came not in the form of some type of program music – the opening of the Fifth Symphony never has and never will be the “Hand of Fate”- but in an attitude of sober-mindedness and staidness that really only worked to the conductor’s advantage in the Fifth Symphony. Certainly the First Symphony’s first movement deserved some of the descriptions used in the concert’s Playbill: it “begins with a musical joke,” its “ostensible grandeur is a charade,” the winds are “decorated by jaunty accents.” The conductor himself when asked, in a recent interview with The Economist, “Why Beethoven?” responded that Beethoven is never superficial, cute or frilly. Perhaps not, but both the First and the Eighth have a level of humor that was missing in this performance. From the First’s opening “wrong chords” to the flute and bassoon’s comic “Ahhh” response to the cello’s “A-umph” in the third movement, we should be hearing a more light-hearted Beethoven. The Allegro Molto e Vivace should surprise, as each measure hesitantly gains a note in the first four measures, but it didn’t.

Barenboim did somewhat better in the Eighth Symphony with a snappy opening. This revved up the first movement as the strings established an underlying motion and momentum that carried it forward. The orchestra may have put more drama than humor in the measure-long rests and interludes when only the winds played, but overall the first movement came off fine. The so-called “metronome parody” of the second movement could have been crisper, the sempre staccato more sharply delineated. The third movement, probably the most “classical” of Beethoven’s minuets and trios, came across with its rustic quality intact. The finale bore too heavy a weight for a movement of such lightness.

Both Barenboim and his orchestra came into their own with the Fifth Symphony, a work that seemed designed to match music and these players. The violas and celli were appropriately lush sounding in the second subject of the second movement. The tympani and horns of the final movement were excitedly brash, as they need to be. Barenboim ably arched the construction of the last movement, avoiding reaching overly loud fortes during its many crescendos. He was aided by the wonderful acoustics of Carnegie Hall.


Stan Metzger