So Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra continue on their odyssey demonstrating for us what Beethoven might mean in the 21st century. Barenboim’s back-to-the-future approach clearly to some seems anachronistic after years in which Beethoven has been the preserve of ‘period’ bands, and in which even the grandest and oldest of orchestras have altered their traditions. Few conductors now speak of learning their Beethoven at the feet of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer, and still fewer dare to emulate and combine the two. Yet this Beethoven was a searing example of what such techniques can achieve. Superbly played by an orchestra which exemplifies better than any other the defiance and hope so inherent in this composer’s music, not least by listening well and tolerating each other, this was political music-making at its most important and most inspiring.
Whatever one thinks of Barenboim’s Wagnerian technique – generally spacious speeds, minute tempo fluctuations matching the emotional and structural mood of the music over a basic pulse – there can be no doubt that this is Beethoven conducted fully in the knowledge of where things have come from and where they are going. In the Fifth this is obvious, its redemption clearly linked to its troubles through the famous motif, but Barenboim’s treatment of the Pastoral was just as effective. The view was variegated, for sure, but all its elements were linked. Whilst its repetitions in the first movement might have nagged with their insistent phrasing as our protagonist arrived in the countryside, there they were again in the second movement’s brooks, transformed into the storm in the fourth, transfigured in the final movement. The first movement was leisurely, but elsewhere tempi were not as slow as might have been feared, and Barenboim’s control ensured nothing dragged. For all the Wagnerian weight, there was a hushed fragility to this nature walk, a sense that it was tenuous, something particularly well put across by the Divan’s fine principal winds. Nature sought fulfilment with as well as its human communities, and so as the storm drifted away and as Barenboim’s transition cleared the air for the final movement’s song of thanksgiving with an almost religious quality, Wagner’s lines from Parsifal floated into mind: “and grateful, all creation sings... nature has her innocence won, all is renewed once more this day.”
It was the Fifth, though, which mattered more. (It was performed after the Sixth, just as in the concert in which Beethoven premiered both works.) The Divan is not, as Barenboim has said, an orchestra for peace per se, for peace is more complicated than that. It is instead an orchestra against ignorance, and especially an orchestra against hopelessness. Again this performance saw Barenboim at his animating best, his Furtwänglerian credentials worn a little more obviously as tempi shifted constantly. The motto was thumped out, the main exposition much faster, the motto’s returns hammered home. The first movement caught fire slowly, its fears building progressively rather than starting out with the violence other conductors might find, but by the end of the development section the net was closing in, viciously so. But the point for the journey as a whole was that the lyrical sections of this movement were sweet enough already to assure of what might come, even given the importance of struggle to this music, and with the strong nobility of the second movement that destiny seemed instantly more certain. The scherzo was less secure orchestrally, its slurred phrases testing the boundary between grand and grandiose, but the transition to the finale made up, Beethoven’s statement of triumph massively underlined before a relentless, joyous dance to the C major conclusion. This symphony for once did not seem unbelievable, even if concentration was momentarily broken by a bizarre decison to have the piccolo stand for parts of the final movement (it was, sadly, rather out of tune). With Beethoven as powerful as this, hope is not lost.
Bizarre would also be the word for an uncharacteristic BBC foul-up over the programme: the hall was half-full for the second of two Boulez pieces because everyone thought it was the interval. Once again, though, preconceptions about the supposedly austere Boulez were set aside in sensuous performances of Mémoriale and Messagesquisse. Mémoriale was given sultry, plaintive treatment by Guy Eshed, although the chamber orchestra accompaniment was rather lost in the Albert Hall’s space, whilst Messagesquisse was played like a Romantic concerto by Hassan Moataz El Molla.
For the first time in this cycle, though, Beethoven was not upstaged by his fellow, later radical. This Fifth especially deserves to linger in the memory for a long, long time.
embrace and extend the musical
possibilities of their day frame two
exploratory 20th-century miniatures
from Pierre Boulez. Mémoriale was
written in memory of a young
flautist colleague, while
Messagesquisse spotlights the
virtuosity of the orchestra’s cellos. In
his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony Beethoven
leads us through an evocation of the
Austrian countryside to symphonic euphoria. During
the Second World War the Fifth’s opening rhythmic
figure became synonymous with ‘V for victory’
(Morse code’s three dots and a dash), the
call sign used by the BBC to occupied Europe.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
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