sun 14/07/2024

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert Four)/ Kronos Quartet | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert Four)/ Kronos Quartet

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert Four)/ Kronos Quartet

Proms hot up for Beethoven Seven but the late nighter proves a damp squib

Daniel Barenboim conducts a thrilling Beethoven Seven

Much has been written about how old-fashioned Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven cycle feels. Yet what can seem backward-looking is in fact a perfect reflection of Barenboim's personality. Each and every symphony appears with a swagger in its step and a cigar in its mouth. Last night's instalment - taking us to the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies - was no different.

We were given puffed-up performances that displayed flashes of brilliance but also, especially in the Eighth Symphony, an overall glibness.

They were also carefree. Carelessly so at times. It was instructive to watch the maestro at the start of the Seventh. Of the opening 20 bars of music, he spent four beating time and the other 16 mopping his brow. Luckily nothing came a cropper, though it did in the Eighth, first violins temporarily losing contact with the seconds in the contrapuntal section of the last movement. When things clicked, however, that same carefreeness could result in something pretty thrilling. And so it was with the Seventh.

 Barenboim insists on making the West-Eastern Divan play broad and lush as if they were the Vienna Phil

Helped by Barenboim's decision to run every movement into the next without a pause for breath, the A major symphony had a unity that others had lacked, which compensated for the absence of an overall vision. Barenboim is too impulsive to worry too much about longterm musical thoughts. He instead relishes digging up little things of beauty. So the richest pickings were always in the moment. There might not have been much rhyme or reason to the megaphoning of internal detail but it sure was pretty. 

Barenboim has a unhealthy fondness for the soft and slushy when it comes to string sound. But he also knows where the magic of his orchestra lies, and that's with the woodwind and the horns. They provided us with a glistening middle section of the Allegretto, a bright, colourful Scherzo and a bold and magisterial Trio. The final movement was fast and fun, too.

It was a contrast to the performance of the Eighth that opened the concert. Here we witnessed some less attractive musical habits - ones that can't simply be blamed on Barenboim. One must remember that the West-Eastern Divan are a youth orchestra and often sound like one - and not the best one at that. The Simón Bolívars have more passion. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain display more technical precision. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester more musicality. The Divan's strings are particularly problematic. They don't have the richest sound. So it doesn't help that Barenboim insists on making them play broad and lush as if they were the Vienna Phil. The Eighth suffered from this.

Not even the Boulez work for solo violin, Anthèmes 2, could rescue the first half, as his Dérive 2 had done the opening night of the cycle. With so much of the material being so often and so predictably repeated by the violinist and electronics, the work didn't offer much potential for exploration. There is sensuality in Boulez's writing but violinist Michael Barenboim seemed less able to bring this out than Clio Gould had done at the Southbank's Boulez festival last year. 

The contemporary composers featured in the Kronos Quartet's late-night Prom played around with some of the same ideas that could be found in the Beethoven and the Boulez - electronics, folk songs and driving rhythms. None of them, however, wove their material together with any sophistication, skill or interest. Lacklustre playing compounded the disappointing programming and made for a damp squib of a Proms debut from the once groundbreaking group. The soft burbling of Sofia Gubaidulina's Fourth String Quartet was the only take-away moment, the members of the quartet appearing to provide an analogue counterpart to the electronic unreality of Boulez's Anthèmes 2 as they bounced rubber balls up and down their strings.

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