Thursday 16 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim, 13 August 2007

Beethoven - Overture: Leonore, no.III, Op.72
Schoenberg - Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Tchaikovsky - Symphony no.6 in B minor, Op.74, 'Pathétique'

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The last time I heard this orchestra and conductor was in London, for a concert in memory of Edward Said, the orchestra's co-founder and Barenboim's comrade-in-arms. That was an extremely moving occasion, on which I had thought that, insofar as it is possible to put politics aside - a big 'insofar', given the circumstances - the performances had little to fear by comparison with those given by many professional orchestras, and in terms of commitment surpassed a good number thereof. This concert, however, was something quite different: something that I cannot imagine any sentient being would ever forget.

The third Leonore Overture received one of the best readings I have heard of it, certainly since Furtwängler. How rare is the opportunity to hear an orchestra of this size - no fewer than eighteen first violins, with other sections proportioned accordingly - perform Beethoven nowadays. Indeed, I do not think I ever have 'in the flesh'. The depth of tone, above all in the burnished strings but not only there, put me immediately in mind of Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic, as did the profundity of commitment from all concerned. The woodwind shone, the brass imposed, the kettledrums thrilled. And then, of course, there was the trumpet call. There was never to be any question that this meant something more than words, more than politics, more than any mortal, could ever express. The stunned silence of the hall, as its echoes resounded, spoke more truly than any politician could ever imagine. The quality of freedom is not strained, as Beethoven knew only too well. So did his performers.

All three works may have been said to boast a Furtwängler connection - although this may have been quite accidental: many works do, after all. It was the last century's greatest conductor, nevertheless, who conducted the first performance of this masterpiece by that century's greatest composer. Card-carrying Schoenbergian though I may be, ardent admirer of the Variations though I may be, this performance was nothing less than a total revelation of the work's riches and its great dramatic sweep. No recorded performance I had heard, whether by Karajan, Gielen, Boulez, Rattle, even Mitropolous, prepared me for the intensity of this reading. It is so easy to stereotype conductors' readings of works, often before one has even heard them, so that one could talk of Boulez's clarity and coolness, Karajan's glossiness, etc., etc. Much of this talk is utterly worthless. What I should say here is that it had everything: clarity of line and yet dramatic propulsion, a well-nigh perfect balance between horizontal and vertical elements, a conductor and orchestra who played it as though their lives depended upon it but also as if they had been playing it together for years - which, of course, they had not. Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler loomed large of course, as did Bach, but this was a performance which took Schoenberg upon his own terms. It did not sound 'like' anyone but him, and was all the better for it. If this partnership can work such wonders - and I use the term as much theologically as in any other manner - with the Schoenberg Variations, then it really ought to turn to Webern, and indeed to the notoriously hermetic Stravinsky Aldous Huxley Variations. We should probably soon wonder what all the fuss had been about. Never, I should wager, has the Finale's initial 'BACH' statement sounded so triumphant, and this was owed as much to its perfect placing within the whole as to the beguiling orchestral sonorities.

Furtwängler conducted a celebrated performance of the Tchaikovsky symphony, of course, but there was no especial kinship here, other than something we should not hesitate to call greatness. If anything, Barenboim and his orchestra sounded closer to Mravinsky and the old Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. This may have had something to do with the Russian influence on string playing to which Barenboim referred in a programme interview, but that cannot have been the whole story, for the 'sound' was very different from that produced for the Beethoven and Schoenberg - and rightly so.

It seems almost otiose to have to say once again that structure and passion worked hand in hand, but this is far rarer than one might imagine. Each movement received telling characterisation, and wondrous colouring, allowing almost every instrument, let alone every section, to shine, an opportunity every instrument took. The way the downward scales of the 'cellos and basses evoked the pealing of bells was a very special experience indeed, but I could give similar examples for almost all of the orchestra. As in both of the previous works, there was no question of routine, even a routine at the highest technical level. Risks were taken, and paid off triumphantly, penetrating to the emotional and intellectual core - one should probably add biographical too - of the symphony. The March thrilled, as the giant orchestra hurtled towards the precipice. One could almost forgive the premature applause that followed. (In what may, I suspect, be a first, a similar thing had happened before the Finale of the Schoenberg. Barenboim had curtailed that immediately, for which we should all have been thankful.) The final movement's threnody was noble of sonority - such richness, and yet never for its own sake - and always heading towards that terrible final silence. There was nothing left to say and, despite the thunderous applause, there was to be no encore.