Looking forward as well as back, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra celebrates 20 years of music-making

GermanyGermany ‘A New Divan’ – Schumann, Wolf, Mendelssohn, Palomar, and Brahms: Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano), Michael Volle (baritone), Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 20.11.2019. (MB)

Schumann – Myrthen, Op.25: ‘Talismane’, ‘Lied der Suleika’
Wolf – Erschaffung und Beleben, Phänomen; Hochgeglückt in deiner Liebe
Mendelssohn – Suleika, Op.34 No.4
Guillem Palomar – Im Ocean der Sterne (world premiere)
Brahms – String Sextet in B-flat major, Op.18

Ben Goldscheider (horn)
Michael Barenboim, Mohamed Biber (violins)
Miriam Manasherov, Sindy Mohamed (violas)
Astrig Siranossian, Assif Binness (cellos)

Two hundred years since Goethe published his West-Eastern Divan and twenty years since Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, among others, founded the orchestra that bears its name, we heard in this concert a celebration that, rightly, looked forward as well as back, the culmination of three days of events at the Barenboim-Said Akademie and Pierre Boulez Saal. It did not disappoint; indeed, it inspired hopes for the future of these projects, an anthological ‘New Divan’ from twenty-four poets included, that they should be anything but a creative culmination. To quote from Homero Aridjis’s poem for that collection, itself quoted in Mena Mark Hanna’s valuable welcome note in the programme booklet: ‘And life is re-created every day.’

First, rightly, we looked to the past and present: to Goethe and his scandalously uncredited (by him, that is) co-author, Marianne von Willemer; also to Barenboim, a prince among Lieder-pianists, with three regular musical collaborators: Waltraud Meier, Michael Volle, and Dorothea Röschmann. Meier and Barenboim opened with two Schumann songs, one a setting of Goethe, the other of Willemer, both part of the Myrthen collection written as a wedding gift for Clara Wieck. Meier was declamatory yet variegated in ‘Talismane’, the ‘Lied der Suleika’ a confiding complement, just as communicative. Barenboim’s structural understanding proved just as enlightening as in any work for solo piano, likewise in all songs to come. Volle’s pair of songs were declamatory in different ways, his way with words — their sound, their meaning, their possibilities — a veritable master-class. The metaphysical intimacy of Wolf’s Phänomen was just the foil for the celebratory Erschaffen und Beleben. A different compositional as well as performative voice announced itself in Mendelssohn’s Suleika from Röschmann (Willemer again, of course). Line and sentiment were beautifully judged, neither performer remotely condescending to Mendelssohn, who rightly emerged as a full-blooded Romantic. A supremely vivid Wolf Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe provided, in the best senses, a breathless conclusion to this section, Barenboim’s Lisztian exploits a reminder that his days as pianist may just be beginning.

We moved then to the evening’s premiere, Guillem Palomar’s Divan-setting, Im Ocean der Sterne. This was the first time I had heard music by Palomar, who studies at the Akademie with Jörg Widmann; I am sure it will not be the last. This was not only a strikingly accomplished song-cum-scena — why choose? — but an involving, affecting, and, much in the spirit of the evening as a whole, enquiring one too. Solo voice first — and in Volle, what a voice! — for the opening stanza: ‘Wo hast du das genommen? Wie konnt’ es zu dir kommen? Wie aus dem Lebensplunder erwarbst du diesen Zuner? Der Funken letzte Gluten von frischen zu ermuten?’ If one wanted a nutshell example of the difference between Goethe’s humanism and that of Schiller, familiar to musicians from, yes, that ode, one could do worse than start here. The music works up to the first line: first ‘wo, wo…’, and so on, and then up to the whole stanza, working with letter sounds as well as words, neither obscurely nor even enigmatically, but with a meaningful sense of joy in exploration. On ‘ermuten’ the instruments enter: first cello and horn, then piano. Performances from Ben Goldscheider, Astrig Siranossian, and Barenboim — mostly playing as a chamber musician, but just occasionally signalling an entry as primus inter pares —were not only excellent and tonally alluring, but spoke of understanding and the fondest of advocacy. Palomar’s setting showed as keen an ear for harmony as melody and word-setting, a surprising, post-Schoenbergian sense of tonality suspended rather than necessarily vanquished painting, even floating in an ocean of stars: captivating and enveloping in its instrumental as well as verbal drama. This was music, aptly enough, that seemed both to speak from a German tradition, not necessarily reducible to that, yet to look outward from that. Voice, piano, horn, and cello might not be the most usual of combinations, yet it sounded — however great the illusion — as the most ‘natural’ thing in the world. The closing horizon of illusory seas (‘Der Streif erlogner Meere’) edged us forward, so it seemed, even if we did not know to what. As Nietzsche put it: ‘We philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone upon us; … At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.’

Following the interval, we were offered the opportunity to sail once again in that sea, with a repeat performance: a lovely idea, which certainly furthered our acquaintance. Soloists all then took their seats in the audience, evincing the collegiality at the heart of this enterprise, for the final work on the programme. Something old, something new: what could fit that bill better than Brahms, in this case his B-flat major String Sextet, Op.18? Six members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra demonstrated why chamber music should stand at the heart of any larger ensemble’s life and work. The Sextet’s movements proved varied yet coherent as a whole, the first flowing in Schubertian fashion, themes connected and characterised, structure ably yet undemonstratively delineated. The Hauptstimme, if one may call it that with hindsight, was especially noteworthy for its threading through different instrumental voices, Schoenberg meeting Schubert — which, after all, is not a bad approximation at all for Brahms. The recapitulation was a case in point: very much a second development, yet with no need to prove itself as such.

In the second movement, we heard a richer tone, something more defiant, fiercely compelling. Here were six Romantic voices coming together in the service of a greater whole, ethical implications abundantly clear for those who cared to consider them. Arresting sharing of lines alla Webern both harked back to the first movement and ventured forth to the unknown — in whichever way one cared to conceive of that. A good humoured scherzo wore neither its simplicity nor its complexity too light or heavy, even in the trio, which emerged as an heir to the simultaneous dances of Don Giovanni. For the grace of the finale, ‘Poco allegretto e grazioso’ after all, seemed to nod as much to Mozart as to Schubert, yet with an equally unmistakeable sense that those days were past. There were sterner, more passionate moments too, of course, all unfolding as it ‘should’ in a musical cosmos that encapsulated and unified the many strands not only of the evening’s concert but of the Divan project as a whole. Long may its voyage continue.

Mark Berry

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