Sunday 23 August 2009

Prom 48: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim - Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz, 21 August 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Liszt – Les préludes
Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This year, astonishingly, marks the tenth anniversary of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said for the celebrations marking Weimar’s year as European City of Culture, and which has proved to be a longer-lasting cultural contribution than anyone would have dared believe. It therefore seems fitting that this concert should comprise works of three ‘New German’ composers, all with strong links to the Weimar silver age of Liszt’s tenure. As well as composing his cycle of twelve symphonic poems and a host of other works there, Liszt gave performances of Lohengrin (the first) and Benvenuto Cellini.

I was astonished to see that Les préludes had not been performed at the Proms since 1963, all the more so since it was performed forty times between 1896 and 1940, on all but two of those occasions conducted by the indefatigable Sir Henry Wood. The recent and perhaps past fortunes of Liszt’s other symphonic poems will, I suspect, have been more ill-starred still. Following the astonishing warmth of the initial applause – one of the few good things a noisy, ill-behaved audience, or section thereof, contributed – I was immediately impressed by the non-clinical precision of the opening pizzicato. Barenboim imparted fluidity from the outset; yet though there was, thankfully, nothing rigid about this performance, there were times when it veered a little close to the rhapsodic. Not all of Furtwängler’s lessons had been learned on this occasion. There remained much to enjoy, not least the depth of the string tone: somewhere between old German and Russian – revealing hints of Tchaikovsky – in its quality. Moreover, there were some marvellous moments of rapt stillness from strings, including the harps, whilst, on occasion, the woodwind could have leaped straight out of Siegfried. If the brass section could not entirely escape vulgarity, that is Liszt’s responsibility; this was certainly a far more refined performance than the truly dreadful recording made by Sir Georg Solti in Chicago. The timpanist – sadly, none of the players can be named – was especially worthy of note, intensely musical here and elsewhere in the programme.

The Prelude and ‘Liebestod’ – Liszt’s term, not Wagner’s – evinced a truly remarkable opening, that initial A emerging ex nihilo. A wonderfully rich vibrato from the cellos contributed to the magic of these opening bars, though incessant audience coughing proved a significant handicap. Sometimes, I thought Barenboim’s reading a little on the brisk side. Whilst there were occasions when the tempo led to a real sense of surge, there were others when it was just hard-driven. That bass clarinet sounded wonderful though. The almost imperceptible move into the transfiguration was disgracefully disrupted by fulsome bronchial commentary. Later on there was an unusually prominent part for opening of a fizzy drink; clearly the BBC’s hiking of ticket prices did nothing to attract a more attentive, or just decent, audience. It was interesting, insofar as one could hear, to note thereafter how the shimmering of the strings made Wagner’s original sound surprisingly close to Liszt’s piano transcription. Barenboim’s control of line here was absolute, contrasting with Les préludes. It seemed over very quickly, though metaphysical depths had not been plumbed on this occasion. The problem I have often had, and did so again here, with accounts of these two excerpts is that, even if one can overlook the tonal difficulties of yanking them together, the pay-off does not seem hard-won enough, without experiencing what must come in between.

Barenboim has considerable form in Berlioz, his repertoire in that composer’s music extending significantly beyond that of many conductors. Here, however, it was the turn of the Symphonie fantastique, indubitably Berlioz’s most celebrated, even notorious, work. It was the WEDO strings I noticed immediately, on this occasion the extremely well-judged portamento, both in the first movement introduction and later. Even the introduction exhibited considerable contrasts, proving at times quite excitable: nothing wrong with that. There followed one of the most convincing transitions to the exposition I have heard. Berlioz’s nervous energy and the strangeness of his scoring came through very well. Un bal was taken without a break, not that this stopped the coughers from marking the new movement in dubious style. There was a notable sense of dramatic and nervous continuity, both within the movement and in relation to the first. Here, as elsewhere, Barenboim’s twin operatic and symphonic experience was apparent, providing excitement in the approach to the climax. The scene in the fields brought an opening duet for two shepherds (oboe and English horn) and bronchial chorus (in something akin to quadraphonic sound). Still more unforgivable was the subsequent intervention of a mobile telephone. Otherwise, the music flowed without ever sounding pushed. Echoes of the Pastoral Symphony were to the fore, before and during the thunder. There was a truly magnificent clarinet solo; how I wish I could name the player. In a less than excellent performance, I can tend to become restless during this movement. There was no chance of that here; indeed, I was captivated. And the thunder brought intriguing premonitions of the following March to the Scaffold.

That movement received an equally fine, characterful performance. Barenboim gave unusual prominence to the bassoon, whose player truly shone. Brass came to the fore but not too much. One could hear a great deal of often overlooked detail and there was a splendid sense of onward propulsion to the whole of the march. In the final movement, the sheer weirdness of Berlioz’s virtuosic orchestration was immediately apparent, the idée fixe a splendid self-parody on E-flat clarinet. And the bells! I have never heard them sound so ‘real’; I do not know how this was achieved, but we really could fancy ourselves in a churchyard. Contrast that with the pitiful – and expensive – bell sound achieved by ENO for its recent Boris Godunov. We were thus properly led into the Dies irae, rather than having it sound, as sometimes it can, as though it has emerged from nowhere. This, then, was one of the most vividly pictorial accounts – one could really see the composer’s strange otherworldly creatures – I can recall of Berlioz’s extraordinary work, yet without any loss to structural cohesiveness. The two facets indeed were strengthened by one another, proving the ultimate pointlessness of debates opposing programme and ‘absolute’ music. A splendid romp at the end rounded off a very fine performance. Yet, as Barenboim eventually announced, there would be no encores as such; instead there would be an additional late-night concert, on which details will now follow.