Sunday 23 August 2009

Prom 49: M.Barenboim/Said/Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim - Mendelssohn and Berg, 21 August 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mendelssohn – Octet
Berg – Chamber Concerto

Michael Barenboim (violin)
Karim Said (piano)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The Prom earlier this evening had been very good, especially the performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. However, this chamber Prom, with members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, was better still, in many respects outstanding.

Mendelssohn’s Octet is, of course, straightforwardly chamber music, so Daniel Barenboim was not on hand to conduct. However, the players seemed to heed Mendelssohn’s instruction that it ‘must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style.’ I was surprised how quickly my ears adjusted to chamber scale in the expanses of the Royal Albert Hall; in fact, it is often orchestral works of more modest proportions that fare least well here. The performance clearly led by returning, sweet-toned Guy Braunstein, this was nevertheless an opportunity, well taken, for all eight players to shine. Impressive cello playing not only underpinned the harmony but propelled the rhythms too. There was a winning richness to the inner viola writing too. There was an aching, though never exaggerated, Schubertian quality to the lovely first subject of the first movement, especially when that echt-Mendelssohnian moment of developmental exhaustion had been reached, announcing arrival and intensification. This movement really put a smile on my face, though the ensuing applause did not. (The BBC needs to sort this out once and for all. There is no ‘debate’ to be had concerning applause between movements and pointing to the practice of audiences in entirely different historical contexts is disingenuous.)

In the ensuing Andante, I fancied that I heard that very same melancholy Mendelssohn in a letter of 1838 ascribed to Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Each of the eight parts made a valued and crucial contribution to a movement further characterised by pulsating tension and sweet lyricism (Schubert again). There was a longing that convinced, for it was never excessively romanticised. The celebrated scherzo was just as it should be: elfin and fantastical – though, quite rightly, not in the sense familiar from the Berlioz symphony heard earlier in the evening. It was feather-light, yet imbued with a strong rhythmic sense: again, just as it should be. I very much liked the way the finale was treated as a fugal continuation of the scherzo’s figuration, albeit with a degree of greater vigour. The players proved themselves virtuosic, yet always at the service of the music. Here was a real sense of music being tossed between the players and returned with interest: a gift, or perhaps dividend, for one and all. They revelled in musical invention as impressive as that of Haydn himself.

To combine the Mendelssohn Octet with Berg’s Chamber Concerto was an excellent way to involve a large number of the Divan players in (quasi-)chamber music. First it had been the strings’ turn, now the wind – plus Michael Barenboim and Karim Said. This is a work in which Barenboim père has a distinguished record, having recorded the work not just once but twice under Pierre Boulez. Such experience could only reap benefits when switching to the role of conductor, and so it proved. It was interesting, moreover, to note how much this proved to be chamber music; often the conductor was confident enough in his players simply to set the framework within which they would perform, though there were times when, quite rightly, the piece was very much conducted. The first movement scherzo and variations opened with a splendid sense of following on, intensification even, as we heard first piano, then violin (thereafter silent until the Adagio), then wind. Suddenly the work was in full flow, the Bergian labyrinth revealed, and what a labyrinth this is! Said seemed very much to have the measure of Berg’s ambivalent – or should that be dialectical – style, his position between late Romanticism and modernity. There was some truly magnificent trombone playing: proof that a fine player of a relatively unusual chamber instrument has nothing whatsoever to fear from comparison with what are likely to be more seasoned colleagues. The pair of clarinets took one back to Wozzeck and forward to Lulu, in a highly dramatic, rhythmically charged reading to which Daniel Barenboim’s operatic experience must have contributed. Fine piccolo playing suggested a homage to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony; indeed, I do not think I have heard the lineage so clearly traced in this fiftieth-birthday tribute to Berg’s beloved teacher. (And surely the Schoenberg is a work these players now should tackle!)

The violin entry in the second movement announced Michael Barenboim’s late Romantic lyricism, with attendant sinuous quick vibrato. Berg’s sonority of violin and wind immediately summoned to mind the chorale to come from the violin concerto, though sometimes violent trombone interjections aptly reminded one that this is a very different piece. Here the intensity of the performance was such that I often forget that this was not ‘full’ orchestral music, pointing to a paradox, or rather dialectical outcome, that chamber performance might reap orchestral rewards, or vice versa. The wind band once again helped to evoke the shadow and/or inspiration of Schoenberg, this time in the guise of the Wind Quintet, op.26, and the Suite, op.29 (pre-emptively in the latter case). In the final movement, we could at last hear the two soloists together: this made me wish Berg had composed a sonata for violin and piano. Barenboim fils tackled the tricky harmonics – and tricky everything-else – with great aplomb, expressive as well as virtuosic, and there were interesting hints of Debussy from Said. Daniel Barenboim ensured that the ghostly shadows of Mahler’s dance rhythms shone through. (He really ought to conduct Lulu!) All players then led us once more into the labyrinth, if indeed we had ever escaped – not that we should wish to... These young, extraordinary talented musicians made one realise the myriad of possibilities Berg presents and alerted us to the decisions he then makes. Everything becomes inevitable, but only in retrospect; or, as Hegel so memorably put it, the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk. But spread its wings it did, and spread their wings these musicians did. This was Berg performance of the highest order.