Prom 13 & 18 - Beethoven - the another half

The second helping of my reviews of the Beethoven Symphony residency by the West East Divan Orchestra at the 2012 BBC Proms.

LVB 7 

I’ve never heard such a febrile opening solo as the oboist played at the beginning of this Beethoven’s seven, it turns the opening from a statement of intent into a dramatic building of confidence which strides forth to the presto. There was beautiful and subtle playing here especially the woodwind blending, taut report of the timpani and the inner voices of strings.  Unfortunately some of the gusto of the opening Vivace section were somewhat lost in the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. The rest of the movement blazes with the kind of rhythmic acuity that one might had thought buried with dear old Carlos Kleiber.  This performance is played with real passion and more authentic than Kleiber’s dazzling but soulless Vienna account.

Barenboim reduces the pause to a couple beats - I’d have been even more pleased if he’s eliminated the gap entirely but it was nice to hear the harmonic landscape change so quickly. The much reduced pianissimo of the repeat of the opening subject which left the people coughing in the Albert Hall cruelly exposed as the music is cut to barely a whisper.  It’s a dramatic effect and often attempted but rarely with such brazen assurance: I like it!

The rest of the movement holds little that is as unconventional and nothing objectionable in it.  Is some exaggerated accents in the final bars which may trouble some purists though I would put down to Barenboim’s styling - which as we have heard is better than the next man’s more often than not.  The third movement also comes with barely a cause for breath and in this case I think it is welcome the sudden burst of energy speed takes as quickly out of the mood of the Allegretto. The scherzo bowled along so quickly sometimes it threatened to fall over itself: the players held in on the edge magnificently.  Throughout the cycle the brass have struggled to really penetrate the acoustic and the same was true here the trumpets although loud’ish and beautifully played they still didn’t have the same effect as in a small hall.

The last movement didn’t proceed attacca (without a break), which was a bit frustrating because this is the transition which I think would come across best from that approach.  But tired players and fitful audiences have to be considered (regrettably).  The effect is easily achieved via on iTunes for those who want to really feel the momentum gather in this symphony.

Once again I thought Barenboim was driving too hard at the beginning of this allegro con brio movement.  But as I listened more closely I found - despite a full and sonorous voice - the orchestra was missing nothing I would expect to hear.  Indeed I heard things I hadn’t heard before thanks to the excellence of the BBC recording and Barenboim’s ear for what drives the movement along.  Of course it ended in glory and acclaim - rightly so when played like this the music knocks twenty years off your age.  Bravissimo!

Its not surprising that Barenboim should choose to end the concert with Beethoven Seven - its incendiary finale blows off the roof in any concert. It feeds though the impression of the “little” Eighth symphony.  The Eighth is in some ways a beast and one only has to listen to an amateur orchestra tackle it to hear the potential for mishaps.  Generally my test of a Beethoven conductor is how they negotiate the syncopated section of the first movement.  There are many fewer who are good at this than there are good at the finale of the Seventh Symphony.  But here my test is found lacking.

Barenboim starts with a very plush opening and doesn’t really get away from that until the entire first set of themes has been repeated. It begins like a genial reading and I prefer my Beethoven Eight to be at deal more menacing - especially during the syncopation where it should turn back time and our heads round in a spin at the same time.  Barenboim doesn’t go for that but as it goes on the merits of this reading become clear. It is glowing, warm and witty. Where many others have failed to lift the stature above that as a mere trinket in the shadow of the a precursor to the Ninth symphony - Barenboim delivers a full blown symphony of charm and originality. In the second movement the fussiness does not get in the way of a perfect little minuet. And the third and fourth movements do not suffer from either a belittling sense of quaintness nor an inflating pomposity.  The players show an extraordinary sensitivity to the risks in the symphony and I couldn’t ask for a warmer sound, tight ensemble and free solo playing. Despite the muted accents and Barenboim’s refusal to emphasise the cleverness of the symphony this turns into a happy, innovative, subtle and beguiling reading.


I didn’t like this much as a reading but the playing was fantastic, the solo singing characterful (almost to a fault) but oh my teh choir were just about teh best I;ve heard in recent years - awesome.  To save you the pain of my whinging - here’s the notes: you can counter-punch in all that space!
First movement
slow start - too emphatic
Creature of Barenboim’s shaping - almost wilful
Development - fugue - sprightly - no menacing intent
Looking for safety
A little boomy and leaden
Punching above its weight
Rubati before climaxes too much

Second movement
Scherzo more like Mendelssohn
Trio of great tenderness and delicacy

Third Movement
Too static
Hardly flows has the presence of statues 
Very beautiful
But speed is not sustainable - only one hymn in this symphony - this movement is a song

Fourth Movement
Bass is not in a Rossini opera
Amateur Dramatic approach but with beautiful diction though
Chorus huge and v good
Four soloists - don’t blend but better as a result
Double fugue well handled but still doesn’t bite
Beautiful, beautiful sopranos in choir
brisk conclusion
Final bars too rushed for singers and acoustic


You should hear Barenboim’s tribute at the end of the concert series - its here.  He then went off to carry the Olympic Flag at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics.  He was in the company of the most notable humanitarians, deservedly so.  This concert series showed his orchestra is know up there with the best: he is, they are simply marvellous.


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