Proms 9, 10 & 12: Beethoven begins

The second week of the Proms was largely taken up by a residency of teh West East Divan Orchestra with their co-creator and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
I’ll begin with a big shout for this project - it is remarkable to think that it exists in the first place.  We have heard the orchestra several times at the Proms before indeed their first concert 22 August 2003 included the Eroica symphony.  In the intervening years they have become a tighter ensemble, a force to be reckoned with on the concert stage and a remarkable constant in intractable background of politics and politicking in their part of the world.
They come to London in 2012 with a set of CDs to sell and a warm welcome from an audience that sees every aspect of their work and, I suspect, approves of it.  Moreover, in this year their final concert was in the early evening allowing Maestro Barenboim to take his place with other remarkable humanitarians carrying the Olympic Flag at the opening of teh London Games.  Barenboim has for years been welcome here - a champion of our music, sewn up in our musical life by his marriage to Jacqueline Du Pre and a forceful spokesman for humanity and peace. He is a remarkable man.  And having been enthralled by his Bruckner I was curious to hear these concerts, not least because I haven’t encountered his previous recordings of the symphonies on Teldec.
In summary it was a series of concerts which bring great credit on both conductor and orchestra.  The playing was of the very highest accuracy, style and beauty.  The relaisation by this band showed teh huge amount of work Barenboim and his palyers had put in and anyone listening to Beethoven for the first time as a result of their advocacy will have heard the bar set really high. 
Stylistically it was dramatic and detailed.  The emphasis on flowing music rich in sound and full of nuance was welcome and shone through in symphonies 3, 6 and 8, teh remainder were similarly nuanced and powerful through rhythmic acuity and weighty tone.  If 2, 4 and 9 worked less well for me that was down to my preferences not Barenboim’s choices. Its obvious that some current interpreters are adopting a Post Historically Informed Performance (PHIP) approach to Beethoven with Vänskä, Dudamel, Chailly and Barenboim picking and choosing their ways through the scores, for example, the latter three all include the trumpet reinforcements in the last bars of the first movement of Eroica even though these are Wagnerian additions.  Repeats were dropped, woodwinds were doubled - but all of this I think is a pleasant challenge to ears and brain.
Finally its worth recording that this was teh first orchestral residency for many years at teh Proms and I’m sure it cemented an even closer link between players and this hall and teh quaint, great Proms tradition.   
The symphonies were given in the order 1 and 2, 4 and 3, 6 and 5, 8 and 7, and 9 - the two symphony concerts broken up with works by Boulez.

DB set off as he meant to go on the first symphony was an elegant performance of poise and originality. There was real “bounce” to first movement - delicate playing and rhythmically far more acute than last time I heard WEDO.  It is still big band Beethoven though in tone if not necessarily in numbers: double wind and brass, four bassi and six celli and twelve first violins.  The violins were split to suit stereo and the whole orchestra beamed, swooped and swayed gloriously under the TV lights. The production is a joint BBC/Unitel endeavour so I expect to see a DVD set soon capturing the residency.
This is a bit too restrained for me - the first movement lacks the explosive quality or the element of surprise   The courtly dance of the slow movement even in its most thickly coat worked and so did a lithe minuet and trio but the last movement didn’t feel like Beethoven on teh brink but more like Schubert in teh drawing room getting quite excited.  It was beautifully played though; the horns were a bit heavy throughout but that could be the radio balance. Overall it didn’t lift off like a shiny rocket: I think the orchestra needed to be either bigger or smaller.  That pivot moment of the trumpet entry in the coda of the first movement - the place where for me Classical Period becomes the Romantic - was lost: the trumpets either reticent or subsumed.
I could write for hours about Eroica - its a work that I find fascinating but will control myself here.  It was a remarkable good performance of what is still a very challenging work for any orchestra. Barenboim showed perhaps a little too much reticence in the explosions of emotion in the slow movement but that was inline with his approach to the movements either side.  Unlike so many he didn’t regard the final movement as something else - it shone and so did his players.  No doubt that they were in their stride and of course there were more of them. It was a glorious thing to hear the orchestra in full voice and its conductor getting precisely what he wants.  The playing especially of the woodwind band in this work (where they are often exposed) was exemplary.

It didn’t lift me into a different place: Klemperer, Toscanini, Karajan and Monteux readings (variously) take me beyond the music to a place of ideals.  I will wait for Barenboim’s recording I am sure he has a reading in him that will get to that level. 
Some traditionalists would have you believe that the even numbered symphonies by Beethoven are the hardest to bring off and in truth there is much in them that exposes both orchestral ensemble, soloists and conductors but I suspect they are no harder than their siblings.  For a long time I have thought Karajan’s 1962 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic the model of how this symphony should run (especially when the composer’s metronome markings are taken literally).
The big tones of WEDO don’t disguise the acute ear they have for both accents and dynamics.  In the murky acoustic of the RAH the plunge into the minor during the second movement struggled to have the full impact it might have had in a smaller building.  I have to say the bluff humour of Beethoven Scherzi is lost on me nowadays - lighter readings feel a little less cumbersome.  The truth behind the finale was shrouded: its part jokey perpetuum mobile, part Beethovenian ballet (which is scarcely ballet at all) and part precursor to Nielsen’s symphonic style.  Barenboim delivered it at speed, with aplomb and con brio - but some of teh bizarre uncertainty/modernism in the work was lost for me
Barenboim challenges us - we all have a view on how this most well known of symphonies might go.  These works are so familiar that for some of us and ideal version emerges as a hybrid of reminiscence.  He takes that and challenges from the get-go: two slightly spread chords demand our attention but they, it transpires are not a tempo.  And thereafter the symphony rages, burns, suffers, soothes, recovers and resurrects - all in glorious manner to dramatic effect.  Nothing precarious here: as fine a Beethoven 5 as I have heard but I could do without the Barenboim trait of a small rubato or extended fermata which underlines the occasional dramatic doesn’t need it squire!
LVB 6 
This was in many ways a stronger more characterful performance than the Fifth.  It held together wonderful and the orchestra sang with the sweetest voices I’ve heard in Beethoven in many a year.  Barenboim is easy going in the first movement but glories in its Pastoral ideal and the slow movement flowed like the brook and it tumbled and trickled and tickled in a delightful way.  The shaping of phrases was meticulous - the accenting was just marvelously delicate and so effective in enlivening our progress.  Barenboim in this symphony is mostly about nuance - and that’s what one would expect from a cultured pianist who has immersed himself not just in the symphonies but most of Beethoven’s keyboard music too.
And yet, when the peasant dance gets going, Barenboim let’s the music, and his players, go with abandon and the storm is about as violent as it can be: magnified, no doubt, by the cavernous RAH acoustic.  The Hymn and the subsequent elevation from earthly pursuits to heavenly exhortation (and maybe, for some, ecstasy) is beyond reporting - it is just is worth reporting that all this is achieved with masterly control applied only when needed and when not, the confidence of his players to just sing as a ensemble.  The woodwind and string dialogues in these works are a joy because one can tell how attentive these young layers are to each other.  


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