fri 19/10/2018

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert 3) | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert 3)

BBC Proms: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim (Concert 3)

Heavyweight Beethoven proved leaden-footed at times

Barenboim: a skilled manipulator of orchestral balance Chris Christodoulou

We’ve had more than our fair share of Beethoven symphonies in London recently. But with the Proms’s monolithic Daniel Barenboim cycle now midway through, memories of Riccardo Chailly and John Eliot Gardiner are being steadily blotted out. Gone are the frisky tempos, the lightness of touch, and in their place we’re being reintroduced to Beethoven the heavyweight. There’s majesty here certainly, and occasional moments of compelling originality, but also a fair amount of frustration.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 may be marked “Allegro non troppo”, but the composer’s in-built caveat against high speeds surely doesn’t imply quite the ponderous plod that Barenboim took his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on last night. Muting the volume to match the sedate tempo (what is the point in performing Beethoven with a large contemporary orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall and then dampening them down continually to such extremes of softness?), he offered us a Pastoral Symphony without the dirt, a countryside vision free from weeds, eyesores and any discernable life.

It was joyous and comedic, but felt like an arrival we hadn’t quite earned in the earlier orchestral travails

Beethoven’s brook (perhaps the topical victim of eutrophication) didn’t babble so much as trickle sluggishly, despite a gorgeous moment of watery mischief from the bassoon. There was a storm, but one whose sudden lurch of volume left it struggling to transition back into the pastel landscape and cardboard peasantry Barenboim had painted all around it. The wind fluted and fluttered with charm and colour, but couldn’t escape from the cage of dull strings that surrounded them.

We fared rather better with the Fifth, and as soon as its rather brisker opening and incisive tone were established Barenboim’s earlier restraint made more sense. Reading the two symphonies as the pair that they are he crafted a single emotional arc – releasing everything in the Fifth that he had withheld in the Sixth, making public and explicit all that had previously been celebrated privately. It’s a legitimate and bold approach, but one that I couldn’t help sacrificed the Sixth as collateral damage in order to rise that much more spectacularly to glory in the Fifth.

There was clarity undoubtedly, and some textural moment of supreme invention (the bassoon once again rising out above the strings in avuncular commentary), but while Barenboim proved himself a skilled manipulator of balance, his bigger gestures lacked proportion. After an Andante con moto of only moderate warmth (despite the eight double basses rising high above the orchestra, who came into their own in the fugal section of the Allegro) we moved into a closing Allegro of almost pantomime brightness. It was joyous and comedic, but felt like an arrival we hadn’t quite earned in the earlier orchestral travails.

During Barenboim’s Beethoven there’s a fair amount of time off for brow-mopping, when the diligent but oddly characterless members of WEDO are left to their own devices, but in his Boulez there’s rarely a moment left unchaperoned. Meticulous and clear where all before had been leaden and Romantic, Boulez’s two chamber miniatures Mémoriale and Messagesquisse offered an acid aside between symphonies.

Although muddled by a programme error that left half the audience traipsing in and out (and in and out again) during the works, they lost little of their concise beauty in the scuffle. Built around a solo flute (Guy Eshed) and solo cello (Hassan Moataz El Molla) respectively (pictured above), the first offered an angsty elegy of muted colour, flutter-tongued flute set against gauzy strings and horns. But where Eshed gave us emotive detail and contemplation, Molla gave us virtuosic display backed by the eerie shadow-sounds of cellos played col legno. In the Royal Albert Hall the latter translated rather better, demanding attention rather more directly from a restive half-time audience.

You couldn’t dine on Barenboim’s Beethoven every day; it would be altogether too rich for anyone’s digestion. But there’s much to be said for his weighty, rather old-fashioned readings, that give the details of the composer’s more time to emerge. The meatier the symphony the more successful the approach it seems, leaving One, Six and possibly Eight in difficulties, but finding a more natural fit in Three and Five. Anyone who passes up the chance to hear his Ninth would be foolish indeed.

Beethoven’s brook didn’t so much babble so much as trickle sluggishly, despite a gorgeous moment of watery mischief from the bassoon

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