tue 22/07/2014

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert Five)/ Members of the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Roth | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert Five)/ Members of the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Roth

Forget the slug-like final instalment of the Beethoven cycle, the gems were to be had at the late-night Prom

The National Youth Choir of Great Britain rescued the eveningAll images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

And so we came to the Ninth. But wasn't it meant to be the only work on the programme? Why then was I hearing Boulez? A mishap: the final movement saw the quartet of soloists fall apart so comprehensively that, momentarily, it began to sound like they'd slipped into some unscheduled Modernism. We should be so lucky. No, we were still with this strangely anti-Olympian climax to the Beethoven cycle, where faster, higher, stronger had become slower, messier, more slug-like in Barenboim's hands.

Did he know he was conducting Beethoven Nine, not Bruckner Nine or Mahler Nine? Twice, I did a double take. Two or three times it felt like Barenboim's speeds were about to kill the symphony off. Needless to say, in this concussed state, the first movement wasn't in the right frame of mind to provide any tension, darkness or bite. Little could grow naturally or be shaped comfortably in this etherised world. The huge, bold fortissimo to the climactic development sat oddly and gave way to a coda that resembled an ever-expanding and uncontrollable belly.

The dramatic entry of René Pape was a breath of fresh air

Barenboim sharpened things up for the Scherzo. The brass rang out martially. The strings scythed attractively. I could have loitered all day in the dreamy Presto and its lovely woodwind contributions. But whenever we returned to the Scherzo, cracks too often began to appear. The timpanist could have held things together but he seemed a little diffident and nervy. With the slow movement we returned to Barenboim's gloopy soup. Here one could only have respect for Barenboim. The way he actually managed to isolate a coherent(ish) melodic line from what was an almost unintelligibly attenuated musical mycelium was a miracle. At this glacial tempo, I began to hear music that I couldn't remember ever hearing before. As a slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth, it left much to be desired. As a bit of sound art, it was fascinating.

One of the interesting dynamics in the five-concert cycle has been to watch how, whenever Barenboim has been forced to share the Proms platform with anyone other than Beethoven, a clarity has appeared. There was one of these moments in the Ninth: the dramatic entry of René Pape in the final movement. A beautifully judged pause in the middle of his opening music electrified the Royal Albert Hall. The National Youth Choir of Great Britain reacted with a turn of equal charge, which somewhat rescued the evening from its torpor and unsteadiness. Pity that this excellent choir couldn't have been joined by their orchestral brothers, who, at their best, can knock the socks of the West-Eastern Divan.

Still, if the cycle itself didn't exactly lived up to musical expectations, this orchestra can say they left a mark on London. Mostly they did this in a more independent guise - in the late-night Prom on Thursday and in the exciting chamber and solo numbers by Pierre Boulez. The elegantly breezy and consummately polished performance of the Beethoven Quintet in E flat major for piano and wind on Thursday night was heaven. Unlike Barenboim in the Beethoven cycle, the five members of the West-Eastern Divan made a virtue of extreme delicacy, speed and softness. The clarinettist was again the stand-out performer.

Accompanying the Quintet was Boulez's chamber piece Le marteau sans maître ("The hammer without a master"), which sees the French Modernist at his least sensual and most gem-like. Conductor Francois-Xavier Roth and alto Hilary Summers ordered things with dryness and clarity, while the orchestra, when prompted, became obedient magpies, jangling Boulez's bejewelled structures with precision and playfulness. 

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