Few conductors could hold an audience's applause whilst shaking hands with every member of the orchestra and then speaking extensively about politics. Daniel Barenboim, though, on completion of a week-long Beethoven cycle, did so and then dashed to the Olympic opening ceremony to bear the Olympic flag alongside Ban Ki-Moon, among others. Some critics have written in the last week that no amount of sociopolitical benevolence can paper over minor technical flaws in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's playing. There were indeed smudges, fumbles and stumbles in tonight's Beethoven 9, but the nature of this unique orchestra contributed far more than it detracted, and there are few pieces better suited to messages of brotherhood than this. The sight of the players embracing on their way off stage was quite moving.
Circumstances aside, there were many good things in the performance. Barenboim has shunned historically-informed practice throughout the cycle, opting instead to find his own tempi and dynamics from within the music. This created a generally weighty, slow-burning reading which unfolded over the course of the whole work. The first movement was particularly substantial, aided chiefly by furious roars from the timpani. There was little sense of nimble agility, rather a sense of some large beast flexing his muscles. In places some greater clarity, particularly in the lower strings, would have been appreciated. The woodwind fared better, as the excellent principals seemed far more comfortable listening and responding to their colleagues. Interactions between the principal flute and oboe were especially obvious – both men would periodically play towards each other.
The second movement found better clarity, impeded only by occasional tendencies toward rushing. In the context of the whole performance, it perhaps didn't quite reach the intensity promised, but it was nonetheless a reasonably incisive diversion from the slow drama of the first and serenity of the third movement. The winds seemed constantly aware of Barenboim's demands, and the many dynamic and phrasing variations he found were convincingly implemented by his players. Barenboim's wide, spacious tempo in the Adagio lent itself to a fuller, more rounded string sound, and the softness found here made for a very tender movement. If anything, some intensity was lacking as the movement struggled to find a central point, instead flowing gently along fairly innocuously.
After building expectation in the opening recitative of the finale, the finest moment of the concert came at an unexpected point. As the hall held its collective breath, the double basses gave the most shockingly, magically hushed first outing of the Ode to Joy theme. The score is only marked piano, but here the line was only just audible. The effect was incredible and gave context to the rest of the symphony, starting with a jubilant tutti realisation of the tune and magnificently bold entry of René Pape. By some distance the best of the soloists, he gave great personal character to his recitative in addition to a wonderfully imposing voice throughout. The climax of the passage was suitably massive and well balanced by Barenboim. A fairly quick, light Turkish march followed, in which Michael König (a late replacement for an indisposed Peter Seiffert) sang lyrically, though he struggled to be heard amidst the chorus and orchestra. The horns in particular were unleashed through some bounding 6/8 passages as the music pushed fairly relentlessly forward. The soloists sang reasonably well as a unit, Pape and Waltraud Meier very good and König and Anna Samuil slightly underwhelming. The National Youth Choir sang well in both restrained and fortissimo passages, losing a little of the athletic inner details near the coda but remaining solid and full in tone. Barenboim brought an infectious joy to the closing minutes, conducting the prestissimo simply with broadly sweeping arms and little hint of a beat.
It was perhaps inevitable that much of the audience should leap to its feet immediately, as much in recognition of the work of the man and his orchestra in the Middle East as in praise of the Beethoven. It was a well constructed performance with some excellent individual playing in the woodwind and timpani, some fine solo singing and a few magical moments. It fell just short of superb, but will linger long in the memory largely for Daniel Barenboim, who made this Beethoven (and perhaps even the first half of the Proms season) his own. Though founded on the shoulders of an earlier generation of broad, bold Beethoven conductors, he continually adds subtleties of phrasing and tempo which give even as popular a work as the ninth a feeling of freshness. He spoke compellingly after much applause, saying "We cannot change the Middle East, but I assure you, we will not let the people in power in the Middle East change us". Bravo, Barenboim, and bravo Beethoven and Boulez.
Beethoven cycle reaches its
climax with a youthful take
on the traditional annual
Proms performance of the
Ninth, perhaps the richest,
most provocative statement
in Western art music.
An impressive team of
soloists joins the National
Youth Choir of Great Britain
and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra to project
the finale’s inclusive vision of hope, reconciliation and
hard-won triumph. What better to mark today’s
opening of the London 2012 Olympics than
Beethoven’s ultimate hymn to universal brotherhood?
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP