Revelatory Performances from Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (4) – Debussy, Boulez, and Tchaikovsky: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, 12.8.2015 (MB)

DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
BoulezDérive 2
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Each performance in this concert proved a thing of wonder. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune exuded warmth, languor, subtle yet unmistakeable eroticism. Most intriguingly, it seemed to play tricks with my experience of time. Half way through, it seemed ready to be over in the twinkling of an eye, barely begun; thereafter, motion – like ‘traditional’ harmony – appeared almost but not quite to have been suspended. A gnawing, corrosive cello motif, for want of a better word, sounded unusually close to Alberich: testament, doubtless, to Daniel Barenboim’s Wagnerian pedigree, but also to the richness of tone and rhythmic incisiveness of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. And all the while, we, the orchestra, the woodwind, remained haunted, yet, as it were, leisurely incited, by memory, (non-)development and re-instantiation of that opening flute melody. Yes, New Music had begun, even if, as this performance subtly reminded us, it had already begun with Tristan.

It continued in a performance of Boulez’s Dérive 2, which was little short of miraculous. (I am sad to report that it was marred by the worst audience behaviour I have experienced at this Festival, a selfish minority fidgeting, chattering, noisily flicking programme pages, exiting the hall. They should not have been allowed back in after the interval.) Not the least of my reasons for never forgetting this concert will be that it was the moment when I felt, not that I had suddenly grasped this protean work, but that I had, at long last, begun to grasp it, in its perhaps uniquely challenging dialectic between the most insistent motivic (?) unity I know in a work by Boulez and its extraordinary variety. Doubtless it was partly a matter that I had somehow become ‘ready’ for this epiphany. But it was not just that; it was more, I think, a reflection of the quality of burningly committed performance from Barenboim and his players (Michael Barenboim (violin), Yulia Deyneka (viola), Adi Tal (cello), Emmanuel Danan (English horn), Jussef Eisa (clarinet), Mor Biron (bassoon), Sharon Polyak (horn), Michael Wendeberg (yes, him: piano), Lev Loftus (marimba), Dominic Oelze (vibraphone), Aline Khouri (harp)). I only read Paul Griffiths’s programme note after the performance, so this offered no key to my experience at the time, but Boulez’s ‘starting point … in some examples … sketched for lectures he was giving at the Collège de France’ seemed more than a mere starting point: ‘When I reflected,’ Boulez had explained, ‘on some of Ligeti’s compositions, I felt the desire to dedicate myself to some almost theoretical research into periodicity in order to systematically examine its overlays, its shifts, and its exchanges’. The brilliance, the (unavoidable word!) éclat of ever-shifting, yet apparently continuous sonorities seemed magnified, extended in rhythmic and harmonic progress – if, indeed, ‘progress’ it be. Something not entirely unlike post-Lisztian thematic transformation seemed at times the generative force, albeit somehow mapped out in a dizzying array, or so it seemed, of dimensions: as if the spatial games of sur Incises were extended yet, in the spirit of Debussy’s Prélude, subverted by the apparently arbitrary.

My (perhaps) laboured talk of ‘seemed’, ‘apparently’: such was a good part of the magic. What was glittering ‘surface’? What was deeper, generative? Those questions may have been the wrong ones, but it seemed as though one was intended to ask them. Barenboim and his players demanded that one listen, whatever the selfish behaviour of some in the audience; indeed, such was the strength, the security of the performance that one almost had the sense that what we heard lived only in that, not in the score, however erroneous that sense might have been. Snatches of remembered, half-remembered figures from other favourite Boulez works – more Wagner, The Rite of Spring – hovered, transmuted whilst we waited, before our ears. There could hardly have been a more vivid, more inviting demonstration of the truth of Boulez’s claim that serial procedures might extend material and its progress indefinitely, nor of his claim, with us since the Domaine musical years, that what New Music most desperately needs is excellence in performance. That early dissatisfaction with the few performances of, say, Webern that he heard, so unsatisfactory that one could not discern the musical sense, seemed compositionally manifest, set free as a flight of post-Debussyan fantasy. My doubts about this work, about my ability it not to understand it then at least to begin to appreciate it, were banished forever.   

I remain unsure quite what, from a programming position, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was doing next. From an experiential standpoint, however, I similarly had any lingering doubts dispelled concerning a work that has not always convinced me. Again, I realised the problem had most likely concerned insufficient performances (as well, no doubt, as insufficient response on my part). What can sometimes seem a little empty on no count did here; indeed, I think it may have been the best performance I have ever heard of the work. At any rate, the playing of the West-Eastern Divan was simply hors concours. The depth of tone of the string section (seventeen first violins, if I remember correctly, going down to eight basses), assisted by the wondrous acoustic of the Grosses Festspielhaus, had to be heard to be believed, but so did the lushness of its vibrato, the sheer ‘Russianness’, in spirit, not imitation, of its sound – perhaps a tribute to the importance of the Russian school of string playing in the instruction of its members? Implacable brass, horns which sounded as if they had come straight out of Tannhäuser, spellbindingly fresh woodwind with soloists of the very highest calibre… I am afraid I simply lapse into cliché in trying to describe the sound; it is better, perhaps, to hear for oneself.

The work of those who have trained the WEDO – Barenboim certainly, but many others too – was, then, triumphantly vindicated; however, this was above all a triumph of the spirit. Barenboim led the players in his most Furtwänglerian mode. It was not that his reading seemed in any sense to ape that of his predecessor, but that the metaphysical spirit sounded so close. The broadest first movement I can recall was, I think, more broad in spirit than actual tempo, although one section was gloriously slow. That lent the performance the air of an almost Mahlerian struggle for life and death rather than anything remotely ponderous; indeed, I have never been so gripped. The Furtwänglerian Fernhören that characterises Barenboim’s greatest performances was certainly an abiding presence in this case. Songful, soulful longing, perhaps to be elsewhere, was the impression granted by the second movement (and what an oboe soloist we heard!) Again, it unfolded as if in a single breath. By contrast, a distinctly modernistic voice characterised much of the scherzo, pizzicato sounding as if it would be acclaimed for a technical breakthrough, had the composer been Webern rather than Tchaikovsky. The composer’s melding together of different lines, different strands of thought, sometimes brought another surprising comparison to mind: one with Haydn. Barenboim and his orchestra trod to perfection the line between conviction and alienation in the finale. Composer and performers alike seemed, as it were, to know the score only too well.

Mark Berry

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