West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, Conductor
February 2 and 3, 2013
Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 9
Diana Damrau, Soprano
Kate Lindsey, Mezzo-Soprano
Piotr Beczala, Tenor
René Pape, Bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Joe Miller, Conductor
My path to an enthusiastic appreciation of Daniel Barenboim’s music-making has, I confess, been a long one. In his early years, I found his willed seriousness, both as a pianist and as a conductor, off-putting. The effect was not only rather dour, but smacked of affectation as well. My conversion began with some of his more recent Liszt orchestral recordings and became definitive in the magnificent Tristan he conducted at the Met in autumn of 2008. This is not to say that I am any less aware of the wilfulness of his approach to music. When he performs he makes specific decisions about his overall interpretation as well as the execution of the smaller units, and the listener is always aware that she or he is hearing an interpretation. Even in seemingly spontaneous outbursts, there is an element of arbitrariness. The most totally convincing Barenboim performance I have heard in the past was that Tristan. As much as I admired his Walküre at La Scala, there were several moments when Barenboim’s idiosyncratic balances, phrasings, and tempo shifts brought me up suddenly, producing a musical Verfremdungseffekt, if not actual scepticism. His least successful performance I’ve heard in recent years was as a pianist, in Schoenberg’s piano concerto, which he brought off in a bravura Romantic style. (Read Larry Wallach’s review; read this author’s review.) While it was enjoyable at the time, it seemed reductive as well, and, from the perspective of Emanuel Ax’s limpid interpretation with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra this past summer, it seems almost perverse.
With this in mind, I looked forward to Barenboim’s complete cycle of the Beethoven Symphonies at Carnegie Hall with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with mixed feelings. It seemed as if the classical directness of these staples would resist Barenboim’s idiosyncrasies at every turn and make them appear dubious. I also anticipated thick textures with misgiving. As it turned out, I was unable to attend every concert as I had planned, and I only heard the last two, which paired the Sixth and the Seventh and the Second and the Ninth. A few bars of the Sixth were enough to dispel my preconceptions. There were indeed some daring gestures in tempo and dynamics, but nothing I couldn’t simply accept and learn from.
The thick textures I had anticipated never appeared either. There was plenty of richness in the colors and textures of the tutti, but nothing to obscure the musical lines and harmonies. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, as is well-known, was founded by Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli, and Edward Said, a Palestinian, in 1999 to embody the spirit of common listening and creation between peoples whose states are in conflict. Based in Seville since 2002, the orchestra brings young musicians together with Spanish colleagues for for a workshop, where rehearsals are complemented by lectures and discussions. This is followed by an international concert tour, which regularly included the major European festivals. As one surveys the musicians on stage, one sees quite a few middle-aged colleagues among the young. Their basic sound, especially in the woodwinds, but also in the strings, is somewhat thinnish, giving them a distinctive Mediterranean stamp. This is not at all detrimental in the strings, where it is enhanced by a pearly luster. On the other hand, the sonority of the woodwinds was slightly lacking in body, and the band occasionally disappeared behind the strings, when Barenboim chose not bring them out. I point this out, because these were in passages where we are used to hearing them more as a more substantial part of the overall texture. On the other hand the sensitivity of the wind players’ phrasing as soloists was remarkable. The brass were superb, above all the horns. The clean articulation in all sections was commendable, but above all, they excelled in their vitality. Barenboim roused them to considerable intensity in climaxes, and all dug in with youthful muscularity. It was a joy to hear them. The marrow is in the immediacy and expressiveness of their playing.
Many of you who read this will remember Daniel Barenboim from the very beginning of his career, as a great champion of Wilhelm Furtwängler, both as a composer and a conductor. He has done a vast amount of valuable work in promoting the appreciation of Furtwängler’s art, beginning in the late 1960s, when the “objectivity” of Toscanini, Reiner, and Szell still reigned supreme among critics and managers. Barenboim deserves credit as the leader in the restoration of performance styles which adopt a free approach to the letter of the score and attempt to delve to the essence of the music through flexible tempi and phrasing. Early in Barenboim’s career Furtwängler’s influence was more literal than it became later on, although he generally attempted to make it his own even in his early days. He was certainly a sufficiently sophisticated musician to avoid slavish imitation. In recent years I have found barely a trace of literal Furtwänglerisms in his conducting. Furtwängler’s method was holistic, blending the intellectual and the sensual in natural physical movement. Barenboim has translated this into a dialectic of the intellectual and the emotive, which remains in essence a duality.
I mention this because the first performance I heard, Beethoven’s Sixth, struck me as an exceptional case in which particular phrasings and tempo shifts could be traced back to details in Furtwängler’s plentiful recorded legacy—or so it seemed. As I checked it against Furtwängler’s 1944 concert performance with the Berlin Philharmonic and his 1952 studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, I could find few if any literal parallels. 1 He had thought out daring patterns of shifting tempi that went quite beyond Furtwängler’s organic and basically simple approach. In comparison, Furtwängler’s liberties are in a way almost invisible—or inaudible—but even if Barenboim’s fluctuations draw attention to themselves, they are persuasive. If one could not quite describe them as organic, they support the structure and eloquence of Beethoven’s writing with a solid sense of truth. In this way, Barenboim’s “Pastorale” went far beyond any performance of the work I’ve heard in recent years and got right to the essence of it. One no longer cared whether the symphony was program music or absolute music, one simply immersed oneself in it as a classic distillation at some remove of rural feelings and rustic musical style. One would have to call Beethoven’s music an idealization rather than simply absolute music.
Barenboim’s Seventh was equally fascinating and exalting. Here the Furtwänglerian parallels had disappeared, except perhaps in the general security of the flexible tempi and the richness of the texture. Here Barenboim took advantage of liberal repeats to delve more deeply into Beethoven’s score. The performance was not only conceived on a large scale, but it had an exploratory character, as Barenboim immersed himself in various nuances of the score through the repeats. The effect was powerful, and free of the pretension which sometimes comes to mind in Barenboim’s interpretations. This is a good place to mention a feature of all these performances, the conductor’s penchant for treating the tutti, above all in transitional passages, as fields of sound. In these passages, usually supported mainly by tremoli in the strings, he avoided focusing on a particular melodic line, as many do, and presented them more as an element in a glowing coruscation of sound. This was an prominent feature in all the symphonies, but it reached its fullest realization in the Ninth, where Barenboim sought to dissolve the more defined melodic lines into an engulfing texture.
The Second Symphony, which preceded the Ninth in the West-Eastern Divan’s final concert was, for that very reason, an especially enlightening foil to the Ninth, because we could here the young Beethoven created these fields of sound in a way rather different, and certainly simpler, than in his final symphonic masterpiece. Barenboim’s Second was generous in scale, although the string body was slightly smaller. Tempi were motivated and defined, although transitions were flexible. One could only admire the precise rhythm and ensemble, and free and open as the overall sound was. Robust in timbre, the splendid dissonances which close the first and the fourth movements were most gratifyingly brash.
Barenboim unfolded the first movement of the Ninth with a subtle blending of the thematic elements and the harmonic support into a persisting curtain of sound. As the timbres and textures of the string tremoli supported the progress of the movement, the primary motifs floated out and back in again. As atmospheric as the textural impression was, Barenboim’s solid definition of the themes and the succeeding sections kept the process on track. As in the Seventh, he was generous with repeats. In this way the scherzo assumed a Brucknerian scale, and Barenboim took advantage of the repeats in introduce “spontaneous” accelerandi and other variations in intriguing, often exciting, ways.
The slow movement also led the audience into a landscape of Brucknerian vastness. Barenboim was not afraid to adopt an extremely slow tempo for the first subject, one which brought the athleticism of the scherzo to a deep, quasi-stasis. The gently dancing, syncopated second theme was correspondingly broad, and surpassingly beautiful in this solemn guise. What a pleasure, after the brisk, “historically informed” or modern performances that are around today, to hear a reading which dares to take us on such a long, circuitous journey! Which is not to say the the coherence of the movement was in any way compromised. The winds played with exceptional commitment and expression.
The final movement was also a marvel of cohesion over the course of total immersion in each succeeding section. After the first outbursts, the strings played the recitative with exquisite phrasing and tone, followed by the quietest statement of the main theme I have ever heard. This mystical hush made it seem as if the music were coming from a distant Platonic world where love, friendship, and joy are as tangible as trees and the sod below. Immediately we were relating to the familiar music in an entirely new way.
Taking advantage of their presence at the Met, Barenboim engaged an exceptionally strong quartet of soloists, Diana Damrau, Kate Lindsay, Piotr Beczała, and René Pape. Pape took up the recitative and main tune with all the resonance, body, and expression we know from his great Wagner roles. The clarity and feeling in every word rang out above Barenboim’s detailed accompaniment. Each of the singers brought not only execution of a high order to their parts, but an individuality one does not often hear, certainly not with singers below this stellar level.
As one would expect, Barenboim devoted special love to the broad section, beginning “Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen…” Barenboim drew out the final repetition of the verse, in a reverent pianissimo, to an adagio, in a way that seemed entirely heartfelt. The energy and mass of the concluding bars brought the symphony to a perfectly measured and powerful close, which immediately brought the entire audience to its feet in loud applause.
While performances of the Ninth are more common than they should be, occasions like this are extremely rare. Barenboim and his remarkable orchestra brought the work entirely to life and created an unforgettable sense of occasion through the commitment and excellence of their playing. Could we expect less of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra? The core of their mission lies in this music.
- I listened to the 1952 recording in Andrew Rose’s superb restoration, available through Pristine Classical. Thanks to his correction and stabilization of pitch, one is less conscious of Furtwängler’s variations of tempo than of his steadiness in returning to his broad basic pulse. Highly recommended! ↩