Barenboim and the West-Eastern-Divan Orchestra: still an inspiration after twenty years

GermanyGermany Beethoven and Bruckner: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), West-Eastern-Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 23.10.2019. (MB)

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), West-Eastern-Divan Orchestra
& Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor) (c) Monika Rittershaus

Beethoven – Concerto for piano, violin, cello, and orchestra in C major, Op.56

Bruckner – Symphony No.9

Twenty years of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: can it really be so? Indeed it can, and what an inspiration – musical, political, humanist – it continues to be. ‘Not in our wildest dreams,’ Daniel Barenboim writes in the programme, ‘could we have imagined that 20 years later this orchestra would be travelling the world as a musical ambassador for cultural understanding.’ Yo-Yo Ma was with the orchestra from the start; Anne-Sophie Mutter first joined only this year. After a wonderful performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto, all three musicians performing as soloists – Barenboim as conductor too – the latter announced that his colleagues, to their evident delight, would now be honorary members of the orchestra. It was, then, a special evening in several ways – yet, as ever, none more so than the musical, without which the project, born in Weimar in 1999, would long since have been forgotten. For there was nothing remotely of the routine to either of these performances, separately and together an event fitting to these anniversary celebrations, which will now look forward to the future of the ensemble and its ideals, in a series commemorating the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s original West-Eastern Divan, from which the orchestra and more broadly its mission take their name.

I am not sure that I have heard the orchestral cello opening to the Beethoven sound quite so full of expectation, still less so when the rest of the orchestra joined, sending shivers down the spine. What depth there was to the sound of the string section, what keenness to the wind. When our piano trio entered, the relationship between soloists, however starry, and orchestra sounded collegial. Sometimes the latter would amplify, shadow in an almost Boulezian sense, the former; on other occasions, the give and take of Classical chamber music found itself writ large. Throughout this first movement and beyond, the performance was variegated and dynamic, founded, as ever with Barenboim, on harmony, be it that of the piano bass, its orchestral counterpart, or both. If he necessarily stood (and sat) at the centre, there was no grandstanding, no pretence at superiority; as there should, indeed must, be in Palestine, there was room for all. Ma’s quicksilver response and careful listening to that of his fellow musicians was perhaps the most readily visible, yet without such an attitude from all concerned, all would have come to naught. A welcome note of old-school glamour from Mutter brought thoughts and memories, however distorted by sentiment, of the age of Jacques Thibaud. All had roles to play, none more important than listening.

The slow movement’s opening cello solo, as eloquent as it was elegant, was cushioned perfectly by the orchestra. How many years’ experience by now Barenboim must have as ‘accompanist’, whether at the piano, as conductor – or here, as both. Ma’s honest lyricism – rapt might suggest here something more self-regarding – was duly responded to by all concerned, whether soloists or orchestral musicians, wondrous Harmoniemusik proving just the trick. A finely traced transition took us to a finale imbued anew with a sense of tonal discovery, however much one may have ‘known’. The release of pent-up energy was echt-Beethoven; so too was its humour. Delicacy and drive were combined in a performance whose Beethovenian nobility was felt just as keenly as the intelligence of its structural command. Whatever some cultured despisers may tell you, this is not second-rate Beethoven. Only a second-rate performance could have one think so, and this was certainly not that.

A string section pretty much doubled in size, alongside augmented forces all round, returned for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, its opening heir to another, (still) more elemental Beethoven, that of the Ninth Symphony. And so, the first movement opened, again expectant, febrile. However, what struck me here and throughout was Barenboim’s tendency towards highlighting the modernist, the fragmentary: not at the expense of underlying coherence, but rather in dialectical relationship to it. This might almost have been Pierre Boulez conducting; perhaps ironically, there was a stronger sense of incipient Mahler – a composer to whom Boulez stood closer than the more selective Barenboim has – to the second thematic group than I can recall hearing previously, the chorale from the first movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, rooted and yet rootless, seemingly already in the making. That said, a Furtwänglerian combination of flexibility and direction endured, indeed intensified, in the great flow of this movement and its successors. If Barenboim’s Beethoven has often seemed to owe much to a compelling synthesis of Furtwängler and Klemperer, here Furtwängler and Boulez seemed to be the thing. Fascinating – and, crucially again, compelling. Harmony below, its dissolution above; brass of the Wagnerian apocalypse; as full an orchestral sound as you could imagine; that and much more took us to a coda of unutterable defiance. ‘Dem lieben Gott’? Yes and no.

The scherzo proved more overtly diabolical, in properly disconcerting fashion. Rhythm, melody too (delectably turned woodwind melodic fragments in particular), emerged from harmony, threatening to separate, yet quite properly, never managing to do so. This music may retain strong roots in Schubert, yet it sounded at times uncommonly distant, without rejection. Relaxation, such as it was, in the trio, was deeply ambiguous. Dissolution and disintegration of at least one type, often more, was always a present danger. It should be no surprise to hear Wagner in Barenboim’s Bruckner, but rarely, if ever, can the third movement have sounded quite so soaked in Parsifal, and so fatally determined to escape its narcotic orbit. How? The question is part theological, part ontological, above all musical. Such, in many ways, was the drama of this movement and indication of the futility of any attempt to ‘complete’ the symphony; for this was a supremely questing, questioning performance, plagued by doubt, yet equally certain that it must find a way. Taken to extremes, not least of tempo, it refuted any case for ‘moderation’, cohering, yet never too readily. Final repose somehow seemed both absolute and temporary. There are lessons beyond the ‘merely’ musical in that too.

Mark Berry