Thursday 14 August 2008

Prom 38: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim, 14 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Haydn – Sinfonie concertante in B-flat major, for oboe, bassoon, violin, and violoncello
Schoenberg – Variations for orchestra, op.31
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Ramón Ortega Quero (oboe)
Mor Biron (bassoon)
Guy Braunstein (violin)
Hassan Moataz El Molla (’cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

There was a true villain at this concert: not a member of the orchestra, not Daniel Barenboim, not a member of the audience, but the Royal Albert Hall. When I think of the spine-tingling immediacy of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s concert in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus last summer and contrast it with the remote, distanced sound, evaporating upwards into the dome, saucers notwithstanding, the hall has a great deal for which to answer. One’s ears adjust somewhat, of course, and in addition, I do not think the young players of this wonderful – perhaps I should even say ‘miraculous’ – orchestra and their conductor were not on quite the form they had been a year ago, but the fact remains that the Royal Albert Hall is a vastly inferior space for musicians to perform and audiences to listen. Whatever their problems, the Barbican Hall and the Royal Festival Hall are far superior. The Albert Hall can work well for the largest-scale of pieces, often choral – I recall performances, for example, of Gurrelieder and Les Troyens falling into this category – and often surprisingly well for very small-scale works. Elliott Carter’s Oboe Concerto, scored for a chamber-sized ensemble, fared far better than either of the Beethoven works in one of my previous Proms this year, and Stockhausen’s HARMONIEN for only ever-so-slightly amplified solo trumpet was a great success in another. However, the greater part of the repertoire really is not suited to this space and its acoustic. Sentimentality regarding ‘Promming’ traditions is likely to prevail, but the BBC ought to consider other matters too.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Sinfonie concertante. It took a few seconds for the sounds to settle, but an admirably full – if inevitably distanced – sound emerged, redolent of the Haydn and Mozart sound we must now tragically associate more with performances of yesteryear than of today. Indeed, this was – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Barenboim’s pedigree as a Mozartian – in many respects quite a Mozartian reading of Haydn, calling to mind the work of a conductor such as Karl Böhm, who was also an excellent if infrequent conductor of Haydn. Haydn’s quirkiness was less evident than it had been in, say, Sir Simon Rattle’s recent Aix performance of two Haydn symphonies and this work, yet that is, I think, a quality in any case less evident in this particular work and it should never be allowed to become an end in itself. What a joy, however, it was to hear Haydn devoid of perverse ugliness in the guise of absurdly short bowing, non-vibrato, excessively-tapered phrasing or more likely pseudo-phrasing, that dreadful toothpaste-squeezing sound that has become de rigeur in ‘authenticist’ performances of eighteenth-century music, sensationally fast and horrifyingly unyielding tempi, and so on. In short, we heard Haydn’s music performed as music. Barenboim ensured that the work was treated as a coherent whole, providing a frame and a direction in which his soloists and indeed the orchestra as a whole were permitted to shine. Chamber music, discreetly directed, was rightly the order of the day in the Andante. Those truly Haydnesque harmonic twists and turns during the third movement told without exaggeration and were all the better for that. The orchestra was fortunate enough to have procured the services of the Tel Aviv-born first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Guy Braunstein, who showed himself an excellent first amongst equals as the violin soloist. The unselfconsciousness of his fadings away was quite something to hear, as was his reliably silky tone. His accompagnato-style passages in the third movement were taken with great dramatic flair. Each of the other soloists was excellent too. Ramón Ortega Quero secured an endearingly bubbly tone on his oboe and Mor Biron proved a characterful – by which I certainly do not intend to imply attention-seeking – bassoonist. Hassan Moataz El Molla was an excellent ’cellist, whose higher range in particular received an impressive and thoroughly music working out. In general, the softer passages were truly delectable, but so were many others: it was a true delight to hear Classical brass sounding as beautiful as they should rather than imitating the rasping sound Haydn might have had to tolerate. The horn calls were nothing short of magical. This performance was a true team effort and thus a splendid choice for such a concert – much better, incidentally, than for Rattle’s, when the work had come to sound a little lightweight in the company of two of Haydn’s symphonic masterpieces.

Barenboim and his players had performed the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra in the aforementioned Salzburg concert last year. Then I had been utterly bowled over, unhesitatingly considering it the greatest performance of the work I had ever heard. Given the acoustic caveats, this performance proved just as successful, confirming Barenboim’s status as one of the world’s finest Schoenbergians. One first noticed, following some re-arrangement, the huge size of Schoenberg’s orchestra, but one soon heard the great post-Mahlerian delicacy to which it was often put. The vast array of colours reminded us that we stood closer to the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16, than might often have been thought. The conductor’s unerring rhythmic command was crucial to the inevitability of what ensued and there was more than a passing nod to the example of Webern’s Passacaglia and the noble passacaglia/chaconne tradition from which that hailed. Future developments, for instance Boulez’s Notations, of which Barenboim has long stood as an eloquent champion, were evoked, for instance in the thrilling, vital eighth variation, Sehr rasch. Contrpuntal clarity and harmonic momentum encouraged rather than detracted from one another, with no sacrifice whatsoever to the fullness of orchestral tone. Barenboim’s reading, whilst far from neglecting – how could it? – the examples of Brahms and Bach, proved equally alert and profitably so to the music’s Wagnerian tendencies. This was a great drama, a which grew from a profound sense of motivic integrity and ever-teeming developing variation. Even so, the sonorities, especially in the even-numbered, more lightly scored, variations, managed to recall the textures of the first chamber symphony: a tribute both to the conductor’s textural balancing and to the orchestra itself. Every member thereof was probably deserving of individual credit, but I should especially single out the wondrous percussion section, providing the soundest of rhythmic underpinning and a splendid range of colour, and both Hassan Moataz El Molla, familiar from the Haydn, and Barenboim’s son Michael, not only leading the orchestra but contributing a number of devilish solo passages. The woodwind section played with a piquancy one might more readily associate with the music of Prokofiev and most refreshing this proved. These players had no need to circumscribe Schoenberg as ‘difficult’ or astringent; they treated his music as music: music to be performed. I wanted the work never to finish – which, given the open-ended tendencies of serial music is perhaps not quite so silly a wish as it might sound – or at least to be repeated.

For the second half, we heard Brahms’s Fourth Symphony: a good performance, if not at the exalted level of the Schoenberg. I was intrigued by the unusual sense of swimming against the current during the opening chain of thirds. It soon contrasted with a greater sense of relaxed inevitability; indeed, tempi proved flexible throughout: far closer to Furtwängler than to Klemperer. There was sometimes, I felt, a little too much contrast, in that the gentler passages often fared better than the vehement, which could sometimes though not always sound a little over-done and excessively driven. That said, the horns glowered with an unforgettable splendour. The final chord of the first movement was drawn our beautifully, with a grave beauty that brought to mind the North Sea. With the second movement, we encountered a solemn tread, reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony pilgrims and also redolent of older music, not least that of Handel. The strings provided feather-bedded pizzicato, a fine counterpoint to the gentle inexorability of the outer sections and the appropriately hard-won development. The opening of the scherzo was spot on with its gruffness and rhythmic security, soon followed by a winning sense of lyrical fantasy. The syncopations were superbly handled, truly granting impetus. Again, I wondered whether contrasts were being overdrawn but it was difficult not to warm to such affectionate boisterousness, an occasional hard-driven quality notwithstanding. The great passacaglia’s opening brass calls resounded across the centuries at least as far as Schütz. Brahms’s finale unfolded gradually, with great cumulative power. A particular highlight was the twelfth variation’s melting flute solo, suffused with a rare and utterly genuine melancholy. And then, it was as if a dam had finally burst. The electricity I had experienced in Salzburg – then concluding with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony – was defiantly present once again. The journey to the closing bars was thrilling and hard-won: no easy ascent here.

Barenboim returned to the podium, recalling that in London, he generally seemed to be asked to speak on what was wrong with the Middle East. Here, he said, pointing to his wonderful orchestra, was what was right with the Middle East – and how right he was. He also said that, when programming Schoenberg, he liked also to present music by Wagner and Brahms, as a tribute to Schoenberg’s gift at synthesising the music of two composers who could not stand each other: a slight, but forgivable exaggeration. And so, we were treated as an encore to a resplendent rendition of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. The heat of midsummer was upon us, as was the balm of its magical evenings. If only the Bayreuth performance of the entire opera I had attended the previous week had possessed a fraction of such commitment and understanding (leaving aside the execrable production). The strings were full of warmth of an almost Russian quality. Woodwind counterpoint was as busy and charming as that of Strauss’s Fröhliche Werkstatt. And there were horn calls of a beauty to die for in the lead up to the recapitulation, at which point I should mention that the crucial intervention of the triangle was judged to perfection. The tuba player provided a perfect bass for the contrapuntal miracle that ensued. Everyone put all that he had into the performance of this final piece. If only one could say the same of general musical life.