wed 24/07/2024

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.


This review does not describe the concert I attended last night. I really think this review tells us more about the reviewer than the concert.This was a life enhancing performance by a wonderful conductor and a very gifted and talented orchestra.This review is so very smug and "clever", I think the reviewer needs to "ligten up " and try to just enjoy listening and watching this fantastic ensemble and conductor

I missed the Pastoral Symphony and so am unable to comment; but I am afraid that I felt that the Fifth was a travesty, in which Barenboim depoloyed every cheap trick in the book to generate superficial excitement. If this was better than the Pastoral, I am glad I missed a mind-altering (and probably rather infuriating) experience! In a good performance of the Fifth, greatest of all works, no cheap tricks are needed. I am glad that Ms Coghlan mentions last season's series with Chailly, since that provided a reference point for how to play Beethoven with individuality while still being true to the composer's intentions. No doubt I will attract plenty of brickbats for saying so, but I simply have no truck with the heavily italicised, sluggish (and in places outright vulgar) music-making in which Barenboim indulges every time he conducts Beethoven. The Fourth Symphony on Saturday was a case in point; the opening introduction made me wonder if Mr Barenboim had been the victim of a cruel hoax, in which someone had crossed out 'Beethoven' and written 'Bruckner' on his score instead. And the timpani... good grief. Apocalyptic, gung-ho interventions have their place, but not in a work so witty and harmonically fragile as Beethoven's Fourth. I digress... the Fifth. Let me be specific: 1) The first movement was taken a plodding, heavy speed and, although certainly weighty and plush, stripped the movement of all its latent fury and athleticism. Not every performance has to sound as though it is being pursued by the Furies, but when it's as heavy as this then it loses a lot of its power. Structurally, it's also stronger if played without a giant (and unwritten!) ritardando when the motif returns just before the end; if played straight through, the effect is breathtaking, like a musical slap in the face, after which the movement ends so suddenly it takes you off-guard. Not if it's telegraphed like this it doesn't... 2) Second movement - agreed about the 'moderate warmth' - how can you have such a huge string section and yet generate so little light and shade? Since warmth is one thing that Mr Barenboim is supposed to do rather well, I was surprised by how plain this movement was. 3) Scherzo - all well and good but a little on the steady side, which really causes problems when you get into... 4) the Finale. Yes, it was exciting (up to a point), and lovely to be able to hear the contrabassoon for once. But am I the only one who noticed that the pulse of the finale was faster than the pulse of the scherzo? The score says it should be the opposite way round! The whole idea is that the finale is broad and majestic, not a free-for-all frat party of making as much noise as possible as fast as you can play. There is no explanation for turning these tempo relationships around, unless the aim is to whip up an audience (in which aim Mr Barenboim was wholly successful). Also - given the generally broad thrust of the reading, why no exposition repeat in the finale? I know Mr Barenboim is usually cavalier with such things, but surely he (with his huge and much-vanuted musical intelligence) could see that he really missed a trick. Lastly: the piccolo (already given a dishonourable mention by Ms Coglan) was painfully out of tune, and to cap it all, Mr Barenboim imposed a huge (again unwritten) slowing over the last three bars, before having his timpanist launch into a fusillade that wouldn't have been out of place in a war film. I am sorry to be so dismissive, but I felt that this was a poor performance - the blame for which has to be laid at Mr Barenboim's door. I know there is a market for this type of performance, in which the conductor's 'ideas' are imposed wilfully all over the composer's lovingly crafted masterpiece, but this really was disappointing. All the more so because, by indulging in so many cheap tricks and distortions for effect, the sheer splendour and glory of the work was overshadowed. It hurts me to see this done, as I know this score by heart (literally, and could write it out if asked) and understand how marvellous it is if only it is allowed to speak for itself. It seems a pity that so misguided an interpretation as this is given such praise and publicity, when you can regularly see truer manifestations of this great work almost every day in concert halls around the world. Thank goodness that some major conductors (Chailly especially) are still around to show how it can be done. If you want to know what the weighty German approach can do when allied to fidelity, you need only listen to Gunter Wand's recordings from the 1980s.

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