The Virtuosity and Musicality of Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Proms

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 44 – Schoenberg, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky: Guy Braunstein (violin), Kian Soltani (cello), West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.8.2015 (MB)

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Violinist Guy Braunstein, Daniel Barenboim at the piano, and cellist Kian Soltani perform Beethoven’s Triple Concerto
at the 2015 BBC Proms c BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9
Beethoven – Concerto for violin, cello, and piano, in C major, op.56
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

This was an intriguing opportunity. I heard two of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s three Salzburg concerts last week, stupidly missing the third for a miserable Fidelio. Here, at the Proms, a work from each of those concerts was given. I was thus able to hear two performances of the works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and to hear the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony from that regrettably missed concert. The acoustic of the Grosses Festspielhaus was, unsurprisingly, a clear winner over that of the Royal Albert Hall. However, as so often, my ears adjusted, so that the experiences were not so different as one might have expected. Performances? Swings and roundabouts. In many ways, very similar, but I think London had the edge in Beethoven, Salzburg in Tchaikovsky.

First, however, was the Schoenberg. I was astonished at the balance between the instruments, difficult to attain at the best of times. At no point were the strings overwhelmed. Barenboim’s combination of flexibility of tempo and sure harmonic understanding made for a very fine performance indeed; so did the richness of sound from these extraordinary musicians. The ‘character’ of themes and their working was as sharp as in Haydn, the cut and thrust of their development well-nigh Beethovenian, in a way I cannot recall previously having heard. That was certainly not at the expense of an array of colours, which seemed to look forward to Schoenberg’s own op.16 Five Orchestral Pieces. The Adagio section brought suspense but also clarity in motivic derivation and development. Colours, again, both took us back to so many of the Austro-German predecessors of whom Schoenberg was so inordinately proud, and forward too. The recapitulation did what it should: recapitulated, yes, but also further developed. Not for nothing is Barenboim renowned for both Schoenberg and Beethoven.

When it came to Beethoven’s own Triple Concerto, the hairs on the back of my neck stood for the first orchestral tutti. Both the deep, rich sonority of the orchestra and the sheer purpose of Barenboim’s conducting ensured that. The sweetness of Guy Braunstein’s tone and the aristocratic, almost Fournier-like character of Kian Soltani’s cello playing proved perfect foils for each other. I was less entirely convinced about Barenboim’s piano; as in Salzburg, there was something a little odd about its tone. But I am over-emphasising small matters; this was a performance of conviction with true fire from all participants. Moreover, Barenboim’s subtle yet teasing rubato for his first entry underlined who was in charge. As in the Schoenberg performance, formal dynamism was communicated and experienced. The closing bars of that first movement were infectious in their sense of fun: like an operatic finale. The slow movement unfolded in a single, unbroken line, with all the dignity of a great symphonic slow movement. How it sang too! And how all three soloists sounded as if they were a regular trio; perhaps they will be. It seemed over in the twinkling of a greatly blessed eye. As in Salzburg, Soltani expertly handled the transition to the finale. He is undoubtedly the real thing; we should expect to hear much more from him. The movement made its progress with Mozartian wit and Beethovenian idealism. Its ‘Hungarian’ lilt edged us at times closer to Brahms. Perfectly poised then, both musically and musico-historically.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony opened urgently – perhaps quicker than in Salzburg. Flexibility was again soon manifest, the hush of what we might think of as a second opening as impressive as the great build-up that ensued. Extremes of tempo seemed more pronounced than they had in Salzburg; indeed, there were just a few occasions when I wondered whether Barenboim had gone too far. There was much else, however, for which to be grateful, not least the incorporation of a balletic spirit into his reading. There is no harm, indeed considerable virtue, in having the ominous tread fuse with the spirit of the dance. A little more single-mindedness might have been welcome, but that is to nit-pick. Certainly, the orchestra sounded, insofar as the Albert Hall would permit, as magnificent as ever. For the depth of tone we heard from the strings in the slow movement was breathtaking. Song was an abiding presence, but we experienced too the (apparent, illusory?) pomp of an Imperial Ball, looking forward perhaps to The Queen of Spades. Stark modernity then vied with Romantic ‘consolation’. There were contrasts, then, aplenty, all impressively integrated. ‘Pizzicato games’ was my first thought in the scherzo, perhaps recalling, somewhat unexpectedly, the funeral games of its Eroica counterpart. A piquant trio seemed more insistent, more overtly ‘Russian’ than it had the previous week. That was quite a flourish with which the finale opened. Detail was not lost but rather enhanced by the rhetoric. Barenboim captured and communicated the tricky balance between apparently shifting mood and underlying, implacable Fate. Here, the electricity was at least as intense as it had been in Salzburg (review).

We were treated to no fewer than three encores. I did not mention the two we heard in Salzburg, since I did not want to spoil the surprise, if they were repeated, for anyone who might have read my review and attended the Prom. The first two were indeed the same: a Sibelius Valse triste of finely traced, rubato-laden progress, and a stunningly virtuosic Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. Following a typically diverting speech, in which Barenboim revealed that the following day marked the 65th anniversary of his first public concert and lavished praise upon his orchestra, we heard an Argentinian tango. I am afraid I do not know by whom, but it sounded splendidly idiomatic to my ears.

Mark Berry

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