Saturday 28 July 2012

Prom 18 - WEDO/Barenboim: Beethoven, Symphony no.9, 27 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Anna Samuil (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Michael König (tenor)
René Pape (bass)
National Youth Choir of Great Britain (chorus master: Robert Isaacs)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Few composers seem as remote and yet as necessary to our age as Beethoven, and perhaps the symphonic Beethoven in particular. Irony is a foreign word to him; blazing affirmation and indeed intensity of struggle seem too much for us. Most conductors seem either fearful or simply uncomprehending of his demands, of the powerful, indeed overwhelming moral import of Beethoven’s work. Divested of meaning, reduced to the level of a performance kit - follow a metronome marking, make the strings sound unpleasant, drive as mercilessly as you can – that nonsense, which, if not initiated by Toscanini’s cretinous remark on the Eroica (‘Some people say it is Napoleon, some Mussolini, some Hitler, but for me it is Allegro con brio’), is certainly symbolised by the at best disingenuous claim to play ‘as it is written’, seems to have reached its ultimate conclusion in absurdity. If only it were merely absurd; in reality, it is pernicious beyond words, for no age, least of all our own, can afford to cut itself off from Beethoven’s message, irrespective of whether ‘mere’ words can ever come close to expressing that message. We take refuge, of course, in the great performances of the past: above all, Klemperer and Furtwängler, extraordinarily different though they may be. Yet, whilst it would be madness ever to forsake the recordings – or still, in the enviable case of some people, actual memories – of those conductors, it is an intolerably unhealthy situation when so many of us find ourselves fleeing from the Beethovenian unity of the concert hall for solitary reassurance, or at best communion with souls of the dead, proffered by the gramophone. Words such as these from Furtwängler in 1943, and behind him Wagner, would be more likely to elicit incomprehension than impassioned debate:

... refinement, or even only what one might call heightened sensuous culture, is lacking in Beethoven. He has enough natural sensuousness, but an elevated, masculine form, Self-indulgence is as far from his nature as feminine loss of control. What Wagner felt edified by and enthusiastic about in Beethoven was the massive ‘grip’, that directness and grandiose clarity of expression unsurpassed in the whole of music, that ‘oratio directa’, as Wagner calls it ...

The Ninth is perhaps the sternest task of all, at least for those few conductors today who might be willing to take on the full interpretative moral burden entailed. It would be difficult to come up with a keeper of the flame – perhaps Sir Colin Davis, not least in the light of last year’s astounding Proms Missa Solemnis – as likely to rise to the occasion as Daniel Barenboim. Moreover, Barenboim had a number of trump cards up his preparatory sleeve. First, the very nature, the very existence, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, its underlying philosophy almost an instantiation of the hopes expressed for the brotherhood of man by Schiller and Beethoven. Second, placing the performance at the conclusion of a cycle of all Beethoven’s symphonies, each instalment urging on conductor, players, and audience to greater heights. Third, the example of earlier performances, though not this, in performing Beethoven’s symphonies in conjunction with works by Boulez. In Hans Sachs’s words, ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu.’ Beethoven is rarely if ever writing in similar fashion to Boulez; that is not the point of the comparison. Nor is it enough simply to say that both musicians as revolutionaries, though they certainly are. But hearing the very idifferent responses to material necessitated not only by serial method but also by the æsthetic and, yes, moral dictates of another time helps bring home to us both the singularity and the universality – somehow, miraculously, Beethoven’s music can still speak to us, just as Marx expressed wonder in the case of the art of ancient Greece – of Beethoven and of his symphonies in particular. Perhaps it was a pity that the opportunity was not taken to pair another Boulez work with the culmination of the Beethoven cycle. Imagine, in the Royal Albert Hall, a performance of Répons, or, failing that, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. Or perhaps even a new work, whether by Boulez, or by someone else, Walther von Stolzing’s hour finally striking? One will always, however, be able to come up with alleged ‘improvements’ and ‘enhancements’, and up to this concert, all but Beckmesser would have been immeasurably grateful for what they had experienced. How, then, would the grand finale measure up to such formidable or even impossible expectations?

There was a bemusing false start, in which applause greeted – well, no one.  Second time around Barenboim appeared, to initiate a performance with anything but a false start. Time was when one could speak quite freely of the opening of the Ninth Symphony as a representation – almost in Schopenhauer’s sense – of creatio ex nihilo; that time came again, displacing or rather rendering supremely irrelevant even the slightest thought of positivist pedantry. There would be throughout the first movement an elemental quality that would be difficult not to relate to Wagner, far more so, for me, than to Bruckner, despite the obvious temptation. Though that primæval stirring owed a great deal to Furtwängler, a Klemperer-like stentorian quality soon revealed itself as a dialectical counterpart in Barenboim’s reading. (A greater debt to, or better, a greater sense of commonality with, Klemperer has been one of the especially intriguing aspects of this series.) Another dialectic, for Beethoven is surely the dialectical composer par excellence, perhaps in a sense related though not identical, would be that between a motivic integrity and network cohesion that was surprisingly Wagnerian with the tectonic workings of harmony and its demands upon sonata form, Haydn remaining a powerful presence, however different the scale of expression. The sense of exposition in the first movement was very strong; ‘exposition’ was not a mere word, nor an all-too-ready formula. This, despite Wagnerian intimations and Mozartian echoes – Don Giovanni, in particular – was emphatically symphony rather than aspirant music-drama. The coda tested that rule – and how! Its bass line was spine-chilling, terrifying, its contagion spreading to the entire orchestra. Would humanity overcome (apparent) Fate?

The scherzo’s kinetic energy came from within, from deep understanding of harmonic rhythm, not as sadly so often is the case, as an exhibitionistic importation from without. There was some wonderfully rollicking brass playing in a movement that exhibited more gruff Beethovenian humour than might have been expected. The whole was relentless in the proper sense, harmony dictating that it should be so. Once again Barenboim’s handling of transition, in this case to the trio, was of an order rarely encountered today. Wagner once called the art of transition his most subtle art; one might well have said the same of Barenboim. In the trio itself, the world of The Magic Flute seemed to fuse with Pastoral reminiscences, to create something quite new, an early pre-sentiment of the emergence of that tune in the finale. The last recurrence of the scherzo material was all the more powerful for its lack of hysteria: Klemperer again?

Tempo and formal understanding were finely judged in the slow movement. Barenboim’s command of line permitted an almost Gluckian noble simplicity, which yet dialectically revealed itself to be complexity. If the unfolding variations lacked quite the heightened luminosity and sublimity of Furtwängler, then Barenboim is not alone in that; indeed, it is Furtwängler who stands alone. Perhaps wisely, this at least opened in more modest fashion, yet remained beautifully sung, suffused with longing – and sheer goodness. More than once I felt kinship with the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony: a little surprisingly, since I am not aware that this is a symphony Barenboim has conducted. (I shall be happy to stand corrected though.) Nevertheless the cumulative effect of experiencing Beethoven as supreme master of variation form was powerfully felt. Even when I wondered whether the first brass intervention towards the end might have been given a little more time, it was the second time around, the latter thereby intensified.

The celebrated cries at the opening of the finale were taken at quite a speed, without sounding hurried or harried. There was real depth of tone to be heard from the cellos and basses in their responses. The first enunciation of the theme was miraculously hushed: quite extraordinary. A sense of communion was engendered, as the players’ orchestral brothers – and sisters – joined; the brass entry sent shivers down the spine and had tears welling up, though we still lacked the word, perhaps even the Word. There were a couple of points when the music threatened to run away with itself, but it just about held together, and all was put right by René Pape’s Sarastro-like entry. His diction was straightforwardly superlative. more to the point, not only could every word be heard; every word meant something, and something important at that. The choral declaration, ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt,’ was for this listener at least, emotionally overwhelming. Words, music, and performance came together as so much more than the sum of their parts. For the performance given by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain was as fresh as it was weighty, its layout – vocal parts dotted throughout the choir rather than split into sections – heightening the sense of mankind’s variety. I was again quite taken aback by the high quality of the diction, not an easy matter in which to succeed in this choral writing. ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott!’ was enunciated more clearly than I can ever recall, and that in an acoustic that really cannot help. Barenboim held the final ‘Gott!’ for an ecstatically long time, or so at least it felt. Anna Samuil’s rendition of the soprano part was somewhat problematical, not only lacking blend but at times quite unpleasant of tone; Waltraud Meier did a perfectly good job, as one would expect, but one does not listen to the Ninth for the mezzo, even for that mezzo. I thought Peter Seiffert was on much better vocal form than I had heard him for some time, before realising that he had been replaced by Michael König. The ‘Turkish March’ sounded just right in terms of tempi, contrast, and balance. Thereafter, the return of ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ genuinely lifted the spirits; I could not help myself smiling, nor did I wish to do so, infected with ‘Freude’. The questioning, ‘Ihr stürzt nieder Millionen?’ was splendidly mysterious, imparting a sense of gradual revelation quite in keeping both with Schiller and Beethoven. The great combination of the ‘Freude’ and ‘Seid umschlungen’ themes was taken at an exhilarating tempo, full of life, and still full of expectation, full indeed of joy. Structural underpinning continued, however, to have a great deal in common with Klemperer’s granitic example. The final accelerandi were of course Furtwängler’s province, if less extreme. The very particular circumstances that enabled Furtwängler’s response no longer pertain; this was a Ninth that honoured tradition but spoke of our present condition, and to an audience of the present day.

It was a genuinely lovely touch at the end of the symphony for Barenboim to shake the hand of every member of the orchestra; it also reminded us that the West-Eastern Divan is so much more than just an orchestra. A speech was expected and came: succinct, resolute, even Beethovenian in spirit. Though a forthcoming concert in East Jerusalem had had to be cancelled, some elements in the Occupied Territories having objected to the orchestra as a role of ‘normalisation’ – how wrong could they be?! – the work of listening to each other, the democracy of a musical society in which every member was an equal, would continue. They might not be able to change the governments of the Middle East, but those governments would never change them.

Friday 27 July 2012

Prom 17: Summers/Members of the WEDO/Roth - Beethoven and Boulez, 26 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Quintet for piano and wind instruments in E-flat major, op.16
Boulez – Le Marteau sans maître

Guy Eshed (flute)
Ramón Ortega Quero (oboe)
Shirley Brill (clarinet)
Juan Antonio Jiménez (horn)
Keynep Koyluoglu (bassoon)
Ori Kam (viola)
Caroline Delume (guitar)
Bishara Harouni (piano)
Adrian Salloum (xylorimba)
Pedro Manel Torrejón González (vibraphone)
Noya Schleien (percussion)
Hilary Summers (contralto)
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

It was a splendid idea to have a late-night Prom devoted to Boulez and Beethoven, as if an appendix to the ‘main business’ of the early evening series. ‘Appendix’ is the wrong word, I am sure, since this was an enjoyable concert in its own right, and any performance including Le Marteau sans maître can hardly be considered light fare, let alone peripheral. It was a pity, of course, that Pierre Boulez was unable to travel to conduct what remains perhaps his single most celebrated work, but François-Xavier Roth proved an able replacement.

Mozart’s voice was very much to the fore during the performance of Beethoven’s op.16 quintet, for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The introduction to the first movement possessed considerable breadth, recalling a good number of Mozartian examples, followed by an ebullient account which never tipped into aggression. Beethoven’s gorgeous harmonies were relished without exaggeration. The new life of the coda – a truly Beethovenian touch even in 1796 – was properly felt. Each of the soloists contributed beautifully to the Andante cantabile. Perhaps most notable of all was the limpid horn-playing of Juan Antonio Jiménez, but this was a fine collection of soloists. The tempo was well chosen, a true slow movement, with no fashionable rushing. If there were occasions when the greater line was not always quite so apparent as it might have been, the playing itself remained delectable. The finale was equally post-Mozartian, echoing not only Mozart’s own quintet for the same forces but works such as the E-flat major piano concerto, KV 482. Beethoven did not always find it possible – or even desirable – to emulate Mozart’s (apparent) super-human ease, but he did here, as did the performance. Even syncopations were of Mozart’s ilk: catchy, loving even, rather than abrupt, let alone rupturing.

An entirely different set of musicians – there is no overlap in instrumentation – was joined by Hilary Summers and François-Xavier Roth for Le Marteau sans maître. When I have heard the work recently, I have been struck by its metamorphosis into ‘classic’, maybe even ‘classical’, status. No longer an object of controversy, it stands not unlike, say, Pierrot lunaire, which we shall hear later in the Proms season, from Christine Schäfer and the Nash Ensemble. Yet, whereas Pierre’s ghost of Pierrot had been very much to be heard haunting the composer’s own 2010 Berlin performance with musicians from the Divan, Roth’s Schoenbergian precursor, perhaps especially during the first movement, seemed to be the brittler, more neo-Classical, Serenade, op.24. Again, as the work becomes ever more part of the repertoire, perhaps even of Boulez’s ‘museum’, different interpreters will find different things to say about it, different aspects to draw out. (Incidentally, is it not time that London had another performance of the magnificent Serenade? I have never even heard it ‘live’.) The opening of the second movement, ‘Commentaire I de “Bourreaux de solitude”,’ came as quite a contrast, delicate, quasi-African sonorities to the fore, with rhythmic structure underpinned by a perhaps surprisingly old-style – think of Boulez’s earlier recordings – post-Webern pointillism. Percussion came to sound more ‘percussive’, as it were, than we have become used to in the composer’s recent performances; Guy Eshed’s ravishing flute both softened and heightened the effect. Summers’s contralto proved not only deep but finely shaded; there is something very singular about her vocal quality, which suits this music admirably. At times, especially higher in her range, it proved almost bell-like. Her duets with Eshed were particularly to be relished, she equally instrumental, he equally vocal. Ori Kam’s account of the viola part once again – he also performed in that Berlin concert – made one forget how fiendishly difficult Boulez’s writing is; Kam almost made it sound like Mozart, an intriguing connection thereby made with the Beethoven quintet. Occasionally I wondered whether Roth’s direction have benefited from greater momentum, but there was no justification whatsoever for the continual flight from the hall of members of the audience. What were they expecting? And why did some wait until the ninth, final movement to leave? Summers was very much part of the instrumental ensemble by that stage, her timbre of great assistance here, her role as ‘soloist’ almost supplanted by Eshed’s flute upon its entry, which is as it should be.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Looking forward to Parsifal at Bayreuth (IV)

The next production of Parsifal has now been announced for 2016. In the meantime, and for those wondering what all the fuss about Stefan Herheim's production (and Daniele Gatti's masterly conducting) has been about, here is a taster, from a fascinating German documentary:

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Prom 13: WEDO/Barenboim (4) - Beethoven and Boulez, 24 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93
Boulez – Anthèmes 2
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Michael Barenboim (violin)
IRCAM live electronics
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

My friend Théo Bélaud (if you do not know his site, le petit concertorialiste, then you should!) sent me a message just before this concert started, saying how highly he thought of Daniel Barenboim’s recording of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin: one of the few modern conductors to take the work seriously, he said. I also think highly of it and, amongst modern-ish recordings, I can only think of competition – the wrong word, I know – from Karajan’s final version, Sir Colin Davis in Dresden, and, as ever, the perennially underrated, overlooked, or simply ignored, Michael Gielen. (It is only the Ninth in Gielen’s cycle I find impossible to warm to, but then I have yet to find anyone, not even Klemperer, who is not found wanting next to Furtwängler; every other Gielen performance has something interesting, revealing, to say.)  Barenboim certainly took the Eighth seriously on this occasion, and it emerged as a far weightier, even greater work than many in the audience will doubtless have expected. There is no one ‘correct’ way to perform the work, of course, and the idea of a neo-Classical, slightly-backward, slightly-stylised glance can work well: witness the aforementioned Karajan performance. (I am sorry if that proves a red rag to any bulls.) Not for nothing, after all, was this a symphony Stravinsky greatly admired. That said, Barenboim’s treating the Eighth as a successor to the Seventh – to come, of course – rather than a different path was utterly convincing. Indeed, it made me wonder whether the understandable reversal of order in terms of programming was really necessary. Certainly the first movement was muscular, concentrated, poised very much on the cusp of ‘middle’- and ‘late’-period Beethoven, not unlike its fellow awkward-squad piece, the op.95 Quartett serioso, if undeniably more genial. Once again, it was impossible not to appreciate how much was missing in so much recent Beethoven performance, how a performance in which sonata form was properly dynamic – for one thing, the development developing – has, sadly, tragically even, become a rare bird in a positivist, or often merely would-be-positivist, age. (Is it possible to think of a composer more inimical to positivism than Beethoven?!) What Beethoven thought of the metronome was made abundantly clear in a magical account of the second movement. Such strictness, such restriction, is to be treated humorously; the joke relies upon it being anything but the norm. If here Beethoven remained very much a son of Haydn, his Mozartian heritage came far more strongly to the fore than one generally hears in the ravishing minuet. Its richness, almost labyrinthine, evoked models in Mozart’s late symphonies, likewise the woodwind writing, much praised by Stravinsky, and which the Divan players communicated so beautifully. The ‘difficulty’ of the finale was not resolved; it never should be. One needs to listen here; as Hans Keller remarked, it is easy until one does. A dynamism that related to form rather than formalism was Barenboim’s gift to this performance, the conclusion both succinct and resplendent, an apt description of both symphony and performance.  

I heard Michael Barenboim perform Anthèmes 2 in Berlin, in a Boulez eighty-fifth birthday concert. A little more than two years on, he seemed, after a slightly understated opening, to be more confident, as one might expect. There could certainly be no gainsaying his command of the score, and the tonal palette on which he drew seemed to have broadened considerably; if I might speak in terms of colours for a moment, one narrative one might trace, or invent, would be that of transmuting silver into gold. And again, what a revelation the Royal Albert Hall provides in terms of electronics. As with Jussef Eisa’s performance of Dialogue de l’ombre double, one might have thought the piece written for the hall, which one can say about few other musical works. Serial writing can rarely have sounded not only so inviting, but, in terms correspondent to Boulez’s æsthetic, so open-ended. Not for the first time, I thought of Nietzsche’s words in The Gay Science: ‘Indeed, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone upon us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.’ Whatever post-modern sirens might say, whether with respect to Beethoven or Boulez, that sea is still open, if only we should have the courage to set sail.

The Seventh Symphony bore out that observation admirably. The introduction to the first movement took all the time it needed, and not one second longer. More importantly, it and the movement, indeed the symphony, as a whole, left one in no doubt that Beethoven – and Barenboim – knew where it was headed, without the slightest suspicion of pathways being closed off. All was obvious, deceptively simple, after the event; the owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk. Rhythmic impetus ran in tandem with its harmonic sister, Wagner’s misleadingly quoted description of the ‘apotheosis of the dance’ disproved, if one knew the Opera and Drama context from which it is generally wrenched. Where Wagner saw ‘individual’ arts wrested from one another, in need of recombination, Beethoven showed, especially with our hindsight of the previously heard Eighth, that not all roads lead to the ‘Word’ of the Ninth. Wagnerian music-drama is but one option ahead, though Barenboim intriguingly highlighted, consciously or otherwise, the extent to which there is common ground between apparently rather different methods of motivic working. The Allegretto, taken attacca, was swifter than Furtwängler would have taken it, but was possessed of a similar command of line. Once again, the way in which Beethoven transformed (French Revolutionary) processional into something of more metaphysical import was only something at which we could marvel, or rather which we could fully experience. The harmonic plan was both revealingly simple and deeply felt; no wonder Schopenhauer was led to the conclusions he drew about music as representation of the Will, and no wonder Wagner, disciple of both, followed suit, if ambiguously. A good test of a performance of the Seventh is whether the second return of the scherzo seems a little much. No such problem here, for not only was the relationship between scherzo and trio perfectly paced – no nonsense of barely slowing here – the playing was so alert, so responsive, that details one had undoubtedly heard before sounded newly-minted. Though the finale lacked nothing in vigour, there was none of the coldness or galumphing that all too often disfigures lesser performances. Form was clearly delineated or, better, dramatically presented, crowned by a coda all the more exciting for its organic, truly Furtwänglerian lineage.

Prom 12: WEDO/Barenboim (3) - Beethoven and Boulez, 23 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.6 in F major, op.68, ‘Pastoral’
Boulez – memoriale (...explosante-fixe... originel)
Boulez – Messagesquisse
Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Guy Eshed (flute)
Hassan Moataz El Molla (cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The Barenboim/West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Beethoven-Boulez series goes from strength to strength. There will doubtless be someone who begs to differ, but I find it difficult to imagine that anyone in the Royal Albert Hall could have failed to register this as a truly great musical experience – and more than or equal to that, a great experience of the human spirit. Beethoven seems well-nigh impossible for our age to comprehend, or at least to express, which is why we need him all the more. Alas, and not solely on account of the ‘period’ revolution, though that has a great deal to answer for, too many musicians – one would be too many! – seem to have lost any conception of what is required. Daniel Barenboim has not; nor has his inspirational band of young musicians.

There is never a single, ‘correct’ tempo for a piece – though there are of course exceptional works such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen which depend upon intricate tempo relationships – any more than there is a single, ‘correct’ interpretation of a musical work. That said, Barenboim’s account of the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony, indeed of the symphony as a whole, sounded just right. I dread to think at what breakneck speed our authenticist friends would harry Beethoven here, still more how they would refuse to let the music breathe. Whilst I never have the slightest idea, nor interest, in timings as such, Barenboim sounded to me very much in what once would have been the mainstream. Karl Böhm, in his mangificent Vienna Philharmonic recording, might have been a little slower; Carlos Kleiber was probably quicker. The crucial thing was that harmonic rhythm was understood and communicated. And what a cultivated sound the Divan offered; at times, this almost seemed as if it were a Beethoven string quartet writ large. It should go without saying that the development section sounded developmental and that the recapitulation offered a sense of return; alas, in the light of so many recent performances, it is worthy of note – and is of course far easier said than done. The slow movement was utterly beguiling yet equally underpinned by inexorable forward momentum. There is nothing worse here – and this has nothing to do with metronome markings – than the music overstaying its welcome. I almost wished to hear it again.   It now seems so obvious, but I do not think I had previously appreciated how much Beethoven’s ‘tone-painting’ here actually owes to the rather different example of Mozart’s divertimenti. Trust a great Mozartian such as Barenboim to highlight the connection, which could never have been achieved, however, without the ravishing playing of his musicians. The scherzo’s rusticity looked back to Haydn and forward to countless Romantics; above all, it sang and stomped with Beethovenian vigour, which is never, as Barenboim understands, something to be applied from without, but which must come from the telos of the music. Though the storm also sacked nothing either in vigour, its rigour was of a similarly musical nature. By all means imagine whatever country scenes you wish in your head; the music and its performance stand and fall upon their own strengths. Warmth, fulfilment, thanksgiving: all are certainly terms one might employ in discussion of the finale, but again, a Klemperer-like inevitability underpinned their expression or suggestion.

Guy Eshed was the soloist for the ensemble performance that followed. Boulez’s memoriale, at least in this context, provided another, perhaps more surprising, link to the Mozartian divertimento tradition, though anyone who knows the composer’s relatively recent recording of the Gran Partita will know not to be very surprised. This was delectable playing from all concerned, and if the piece itself would prove not only memorial but new beginning (on the path to ...explosante-fixe...), here it offered, if not light relief, then delicious contrast.  Just as in a previous Proms performance from these musicians, Boulezian open-endedness was an abiding impression, an oblique response perhaps to Beethovenian finality?

Messaagesquisse followed: an exciting prospect, given the fine performance I had heard Hassan Moataz El Molla and colleagues from the WEDO give, under Barenboim’s direction, in Berlin a couple of years ago, for the composer’s eighty-fifth birthday. Unfortunately, and I put it mildly, the hall had neglected to inform at least a good number of us – it seems that there were inserts in some programmes, though not others, and no announcement was made – that the interval would come after rather than before the performance. Along with many around me, I sauntered outside for a breath of fresh air, was informed by an usher that the interval would last for twenty minutes – yes, I even asked! – only to find upon my return to the hall, the cellist receiving applause from a significantly reduced audience. Why ever was an announcement not made and/or a notice displayed, and why ever did the staff not inform those of us leaving? Still, it was heart-warming to note on returning home a little postscript to the relevant page on the Proms website: ‘Please note: For technical reasons, it has been necessary to move the position of tonight's interval, which will now occur after Pierre Boulez's Messagesquisse.’ I hope that those listeners at home who would otherwise have reached for the kettle would not have suffered the same fate as many of us paying customers in the hall. Here, below, is a video clip of the Berlin performance I heard.

After the interval proper came Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I had doubtless been unlucky, but I had never heard in the concert hall a performance I thought worthy of the work, or indeed of the great recorded performances of the past. Now, for the first time, I did. Interestingly, given that a reader quizzed me only a day or so ago about why I rarely mentioned Klemperer’s influence upon Barenboim, I felt that more strongly than I had usually done in the first movement. No one would be able to recreate the very specific circumstances of desperation and defiance to be heard in Furtwängler’s legendary 1943 recording.

Barenboim wisely did not try. But there was to be heard throughout this still incredibly concise movement – Webern must surely have loved it! – something of the implacability, the inexorability, the impossibility of compromise, almost synonymous with Klemperer, one of Barenboim’s greatest mentors. The opening bars knocked one for six, yet did not stand out like a sore thumb, nor indeed at all; they opened, and the music, in the best sense rather than that more generally current, never relented. There was defiance too in the slow movement, its processional status – another nod, or more, to the French Revolution – readily apparent, readily felt. If there were repose at all, it was of the most limited order. Tonal restlessness continually undermined any such temptations, for the battle was far from won. The scherzo offered plenty of opportunity, well taken, for Barenboim’s musicians to shine: one could sense, even without seeing, how well they had been taught to listen to each other. Yet of course this was not a case simply of chamber music on a grander scale – a problem with some of Claudio Abbado’s more recent performances, when it comes to music for which the idea simply is not apposite – for it required, and received, the surety of Barenboim’s guiding hand. (Special mention must be made of the double basses in the trio, digging so deep, so rich, that there could be no doubt that this music meant something, even if that something could never be put into words.) The transition from the ghostly reprise of the scherzo – here, rightly played above all with musical meaning rather than as a strange ‘effect’ – into the finale is surely one of the most extraordinary in all music. Barenboim and the orchestra showed that it need not fall flat in performance, as so often it does; indeed, they showed that Beethoven can still storm, perhaps open, the portals of heaven. In a mediocre performance, the predominance of tonic and dominant harmony can almost become tedious. On this occasion, there was no doubting the optimistic, humanistic blazing of glory that Beethoven offers and our age more often than not seems able only to decline, or at least to snipe at. Having the piccolo player stand looked a little odd, but it enabled us to hear her part properly, and to appreciate what miniature invention lies therein. For the coda acted, as it must, as a release for all the tension built up throughout the symphony. We might still have questions at the end; our historical predicament doubtless makes it inevitable. Yet somehow, this music can still, just, offer us hope. I have no idea how this performance will sound as a recorded memento in the cold light of day. But who needs the cold light of day? Certainly not Beethoven.

Monday 23 July 2012

Prom 11: Les Troyens - Royal Opera/Pappano, 22 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Cassandre – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Chorèbe – Fabio Capitanucci
Enée – Bryan Hymel
Didon – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Narbal – Brindley Sherratt
Anna – Hanna Hipp
Ascagne – Barbara Senator
Priam – Robert Lloyd
Hécube – Pamela Helen Stephen
Ghost of Hector – Jihoon Kim
Panthée – Ashley Holland
Hélénus – Ji Hyun Kim
Greek Captain – Lukas Jakobski
Trojan Soldier/Mercure – Daniel Grice
Iopas – Ji-Min Park
First Soldier – Adrian Clarke
Second Soldier – Jeremy White
Hylas – Ed Lyon

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Image: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Hearing The Trojans in concert at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Proms was, for me at least, a much happier experience than when it laboured under the crowd-pleasing would-be-musical-comedy served up by David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera. (I wrote about my experience of the latter here, so shall try to restrain myself from rehearsing my criticisms. For a very different standpoint, from one who admired McVicar’s staging, read Anne Ozorio’s review for Opera Today.)

Speaking to a few members of the audience who had also attended both, I was clearly not the only person to have found conductor and soloists liberated by the concert hall. Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting still has its problems, but he makes Berlioz sound less like Verdi than he does Wagner, and, as at Covent Garden, his reading gathered strength as it went on. Even the first act, where sometimes he appeared to think that he was conducting Aida, had stronger, more idiomatic moments.  The very opening was far too fast, breathless rather than jubilant, the Trojans opening ‘Ha! Ha!’ sounding as if they were hyper-ventilating. However, the transformation of mood signalling the arrival of Cassandre was very well handled, doubtless informed by plenty of theatrical experience yet without the encumbrance of inadequate scenic presentation. The disquieting weirdness of the orchestra throughout her recitative and aria painted a thousand words. Likewise, the terrible, ominous tread of the march and choral hymn, ‘Dieux protecteurs de la ville éternelle’  - the irony of the words properly telling – was compellingly presented, far more in touch with the inheritance of Gluck’s obsequies than had previously been the case. It was a pity, then, that the ensuing Wrestlers’ Dance reverted to Verdian type. Cassandre’s aria, ‘Non, je ne verrai pas la deplorable fête’ was conducted as if Pappano had a bus to catch, but thereafter things settled down, off-stage – or rather arena – brass sounding utterly resplendent in the act finale. One might have had quibbles here and there, but save for an unfortunate lapse of tension towards the end of the fourth act – it really must be maintained here, lest the Berlioz nay-sayers have their day in court over alleged ‘longueurs’ – there was much to enjoy, not least a vividly pictorial Royal Hunt and Storm, suffused also with erotic longing.

Of course, those of us who have heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the opera will never forget the experience: a performance far more alert to Berlioz’s formal imperatives, in which never, not once, did the dramatic, Gluckian tensian sag, but sadly, it is not logistically possible for every performance one hears to emanate from the hands of the world’s greatest Berlioz interpreter. The best stomachs, to misquote Voltaire, are not necessarily those that reject all food. Pappano more often than not did a good job, considerably better than at the staged performance I saw. And the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played magnificently throughout, even on the occasions when its direction proved a little misguided.

The major problem with a number of the sung performances remained the level not only of French pronunciation, but French style. The latter is not monolithic of course, and it is no bad thing to have preconceptions challenged, but singing Berlioz as if he were Verdi simply does not pass muster, especially if pronunciation is all over the place. (Incidentally, the lack of comment by many writers on this crucial aspect should really be a matter for concern. If English-language critics simply cannot hear when the French language is being distorted, even butchered, they should probably leave Berlioz well alone.) There was a broad spectrum, of course: two singers who again covered themselves in glory were Ed Lyon as Hylas, his song deceptively simple and touching, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. If there were times when the orchestra threatened to overwhelm the latter’s voice, it never did, and that struggle is surely expressive of the drama. Relieved of McVicarisms, Antonacci channelled all of her musico-dramatic energies into a searing portrayal of the doomed prophetess. Even as a little boy reading the ancient legends, Cassandra was for me a figure of empathy; here, her predicament and nobility of spirit were searingly portrayed in a performance that would have nothing whatsoever to fear from comparison with Davis’s Petra Lang. Ironically, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon, if hardly an epitome of French style, came alive far more dramatically than on stage. There was now a proper sense of a woman scorned, of righteous fury. Bryan Hymel’s Enée, however, continues to lack not only correct, or even feasible, pronunciation, but also refulgence of tone. If only, Jonas Kaufmann had been fit to sing. At times, alas, Hymel sounded like a parody of Jon Vickers Perhaps others can more readily overlook the odd mispronunciations, also a characteristic of Fabio Capitanucci’s Chorèbe, but they surely ought at least to have difficulties with the strangulated tone and the crude, Verdi-like delivery. Vignettes were often well taken. Ji-Min Park’s Iopas was sung beautifully, if one could ignore the lack of ease with the language. And small though the part may be, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Hécube somehow managed blood-curdlingly to capture the attention, as she and others recoiled at the death of Laocoön.

Aside from the second act finale, when the women experienced slight intonational problems, the choral singing was excellent too. Not quite a match, perhaps for Davis’s London Symphony Chorus – is there a chorus anywhere that has sung more Berlioz? – but impressive nevertheless.  As an introduction to Berlioz’s extraordinary opera, this could hardly have failed to impress. Even for those of us who have known Les Troyens for a while, it remained an inspiring, if in some respects flawed, experience. Both the Proms and the Royal Opera should be congratulated for their efforts in bringing the work to a wider audience.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Prom 10: Eisa/WEDO/Barenboim (2) - Beethoven and Boulez, 21 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
Boulez – Dialogue de l’ombre double
Beethoven – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Eroica’, op.55

Jussef Eisa (clarinet)
Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM computer music designer)
Jérémie Henrot (IRCAM sound engineer)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven's
Fourth Symphony at the BBC Proms

This second instalment of the Beethoven symphonies from Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra reversed the chronological order, so that the Fourth was to be heard in the first half, along with Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double, with the second half given over to the Eroica. Fair enough, one might say, the latter symphony being an obvious work with which to conclude the programme. I wondered whether it might therefore have made sense to mix up the programming a little more, rather than to present an almost-but-not-quite chronology, but any ordering will possess its particular advantages. As it was, even though the Fourth came first, I could not help but hear it to a certain degree in the light of what was yet to come.

Its first-movement introduction sounded deliciously dark, spacious, mysteriously flowing in a fashion that almost inevitably brought Barenboim’s hero, Furtwängler to mind. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit? The transition was thrillingly navigated to a spruce, well-articulated, yet dramatically charged exposition. Six double basses marked a larger orchestra than that employed for the First and Second Symphonies (with four), but somehow there was already a sense of slight scaling down from the Eroica we had not yet heard; and so it would come to pass, with eight players after the interval. There was an occasional slight thinness to the WEDO’s string tone, not simply to be ascribed to numbers or the acoustic, and especially if one had in the back of one’s mind Barenboim’s recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but for the most part this was cultured, cultivated playing. More important was an ever-present sense of teleology, without which Beethoven makes no sense whatsoever. Equally crucial, indeed indissolubly interlinked, were rhythmic propulsion and the concision that is such a hallmark of this symphony and this movement in particular. There was an abiding sense of the processional – ghosts of the French Revolution? – to the slow movement, woodwind rightly to the fore. What a joy it was to hear again after the years of ‘authenticke’ terror a Beethoven in which the metronome played no part; music in the sense of score and performance progressed according to its own requirements and possibilities. It was as free and goal-oriented as one might expect from Barenboim in one of the piano sonatas. Other ghosts – the Eroica, late Haydn – haunted the sterner moments; humanity and the present always won through, with woodwind playing of truly heart-stopping beauty. The scherzo sounded as a successor to the funeral games of its Eroica counterpart: athletic, heroic, what the Olympics might be, were their vile commercialism to be jettisoned. There was a ‘traditional’ slowing for the trio, rightly pointing to its premonitory kinship with the Seventh. The finale was certainly swift, but also graceful, Haydn’s example far from banished – and why should it be? By turns lithe and muscular, this exuded vitality.

Jussef Eisa performs Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double at the BBC Proms
Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double, performed by Jussef Eisa with IRCAM design from lbert Nouno and sound engineering from Jérémie Henrot, received a revelatory performance: an achievement from any musician, let alone a clarinettist so young. The Royal Albert Hall came into its own here, the ‘double shadow’ enveloping the audience – amongst whom, there were, sadly, a few disruptive influences – and evoking all manner of historical resonances from plainsong versicle and response in a great basilica to Boulez’s own Répons. The relationship between ‘original’ and electronic sound was by turn blurred and rendered clear, intelligent lighting adding a helpful visual element. Truly magical passages of transition between strophes provided some of the many highlights. Eisa – and Boulez! – offered arabesques of ravishing beauty, delivered with a virtuosity that would surely have impressed Berio, to whom the score is dedicated, though here the virtuosity tends towards a more gentle kind than is essayed in the Sequenzas. I was also put in mind of Nono’s Venetian evocations, whilst the spatial movement of electronic sounds, at some points almost dizzyingly fairground-like, sounded as if transformed Gabrieli or Monteverdi. This was a remarkable performance of a remarkable work, which survived coughing, sneezing, chattering, even the man next to me who insisted on eating his sandwiches.

The first movement of the Eroica took a little while to get into its stride, the only (relative) disappointment to the concert. Accents, surprisingly for Barenboim, sounded a little over-emphasised, more akin to the artificial ‘excitement’ lesser musicians impose upon Beethoven. Counterpoint, however, was clear and harmonically propulsive, and momentary apparent desertion from Furtwängler’s path was put right with yearning voicing – and working – of the second subject. The magic tended to be reserved for hushed moments, at least until echt-Beethovenian defiance was voiced in the recapitulation. Gloriously apparent was the status of the coda as second development – perhaps a link, despite the formal perfection of Beethoven’s scheme, to the open-endedness integral to Boulez’s æsthetic. Klemperer, hewn from granite, remains the model for so many of us in the Funeral March, but Barenboim’s more fluid approach more than justified itself. There was some especially fine playing from the WEDO’s woodwind principals. The episodes unabashedly evoked Furtwängler, not just in their shaping but in their organic growth from existing material. Nobility of utterance verged upon the supreme. This was Wagnerian Beethoven, and all the better for it; several times I heard intimations of Die Walküre. Wagner’s 1851 programmmatic explanation of this symphony came to mind:

... the term ‘heroic’ must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero. If we understand ‘hero’ to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings — love, pain, and strength — at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object, as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving tones of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by … feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality, to which nothing human is strange, and which contains within itself everything that is truly human.

I wonder whether I heard the scherzo differently, following that of the Fourth. At any rate, Beethoven’s life-force was wonderfully apparent. The Romantic grandeur of those horns announcing the trio acted as a reminder that Der Freischütz is not so very far away. Beethoven’s finale followed on with truly musico-dramatic inevitability, as did each variation from its predecessor. Beethoven cannot be given with cynicism, yet our own, cynical age needs him more than ever. I doubt that any musician today could square that circle as well as Barenboim. The very existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra stands as testament to that.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Yet another case of the contempt with which English newspapers treat music...

It might seem unfair to be picking on The Guardian again, since it remains preferable to other English daily newspapers. (The competition is not strong.) However, a piece by Martin Kettle published on Thursday (click here) is so lamentable that I simply could not resist responding. The broader point advanced is actually reasonable: Classical music - in particular Mozart and, be it noted, Haydn, or for that matter Gluck - is not served well by the Proms, nor indeed by our symphony orchestras in general. The LSO under Sir Colin Davis, may his example be blessed, offers a rare exception. However, it is difficult to understand that this has anything to do with the Proms in particular, and even a fervent, maybe rabid, Mozartian such as I would have to admit that the Royal Albert Hall does not provide an ideal acoustic for hearing Mozart's symphonies. (The acoustic is a general problem; by far the best single step for the Proms would be to move to a more suitable venue.)

One of the first things that strikes one is the childish nature of the writing. Had I been given the piece blind, I might have been forgiven for thinking it the work of a not-very-gifted twelve-year-old. 'He's Mozart, for goodness sake, one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.' Which great musical geniuses has the world never known? Is that am historical, a metaphysical, or perhaps an extra-terrestrial question?

The following, should it be correct, reads as if a child were recounting the findings of his or her school project: 'There was no Mozart symphony performed in the whole of the 2011 season either. Nor any in 2009. Nor in 2007. Two years ago, 2010, there were two Mozart symphonies (Nos 35 and 40). In 2008 there was one (No 34).' I say, 'should it be correct,' since elsewhere, Kettle certainly does not have his facts right: a point The Guardian, with its mantra of 'comment is free, but facts are sacred' ought to bear in mind. Kettle writes, 'Symphony No 32 has not been performed at the Proms since 1985.' I must, then, have been imagining a performance I could have sworn I heard in 2004, from Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Since the writer claims to have garnered his performance data from the Proms website, either it must be a work of fantasy or at least languish in an unhelpful, defective state, in which case Kettle's findings will be worthless, or he is unable to read the information provided, in which case... As it turned out, I found mention of the Volkov performance (11 August) as soon as I visited the site.

As for the entirely unsupported claim, 'I cannot see how the scarcity of Mozart symphonies at the Proms can be the result of anything but a conscious decision,' it seems so strange that I had to read it several times to check that I had not missed a word or two. Are we seriously supposed to believe - and I, like just about everyone else, have problems with Proms scheduling too - that those responsible for planning the Proms harbour a secret grudge against Mozart? That would certainly be newsworthy, but what might lie behind it? Any thoughts, Mr Kettle? None whatsoever, it would seem.

The claim that 'Mozart's orchestral music ... was part of the fundamental musical education of the public for most of the 19th and 20th centuries,' is simply bizarre. True, Mozart's later symphonies were more popular than Haydn's during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but most of Mozart's orchestral music went largely or literally unheard during the greater part of that period. Moreover, Kettle seems quite incapable of distinguishing between Mozart's symphonies and his orchestral music, switching between the two as if they were interchangeable. For better or worse, many of Mozart's symphonies are less central to the repertory than his concertos. What about his divertimenti, his marches and dances, his other orchestral works?  I should be the first to argue that we should hear more, far more, of them, but I might at least realise that a raw deal for the symphonies, even the later masterpieces, does not in itself necessarily amount to 'marginalisation of Mozart's orchestral music'. A cause, just or unjust, is not helped in the slightest by misleading or ignorant presentation.

Perhaps the fundamental question, however, is why The Guardian as Martin Kettle writing about music at all. His reviews frequently betray his ignorance of the most basic musical matters. Whatever Kettle's more general journalistic strengths and weaknesses might be, his qualifications for writing about music remain, if we are charitable, uncertain. A newspaper would be unlikely to treat politics, football, economics, fashion, etc., in so cavalier a fashion; apparently music is of such marginal importance that anyone, or rather any journalist, is fitted to opine. Not for the first time, then, one realises how grateful we should be for the Internet and for the host of independent voices it has enabled to be heard. Without the confines of decaying 'media organisations', those writing may be judged upon what they write and its foundations, though undue weight is still ascribed by some to those stationed within what On an Overgrown Path memorably terms the 'commercial-intermediary complex'.

At any rate, with friends like that, Mozart stands in no need of enemies.

Prom 9: WEDO/Barenboim (1) - Beethoven and Boulez, 20 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven - Symphony no.1 in C major, op.21
Boulez – Dérive 2
Beethoven – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: BBC SO/Chris Christodoulou

Beethoven and Boulez have a great deal in common, but even more that dialectically relates them, without necessarily betokening common ground. The most obvious example, arguably, would be the deconstructive kinship between the Hammerklavier Sonata and Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata. Whatever one might think of the claim that, thereafter, sonata form had been destroyed – I am not unsympathetic, albeit willing to admit of intriguing exceptions – it is certainly the case that Beethoven’s example permitted such a claim and, more to the point, that it inspired the restless formal experimentation which, via Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, Webern, et al., has both become expected of composers and inescapably linked, whether in emulation of or rebellion towards, Ravel’s grand sourd. A Beethoven cycle from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim would be an event, no matter what; interspersed with works by Boulez, the prospect somehow advances even beyond the red-letter day. Beethoven found himself lumbered with pointless projections of his brooding if blurred image beneath the choir; Boulez was spared that indignity.

Barenboim elected to perform Beethoven’s First Symphony with what, for him, or at least for my expectations of him, was a relatively small orchestra: only four double basses, to give an impression. Nevetherless, the expectancy of the first movement’s introduction was in no way hampered by that; nor was the cultivation of the WEDO’s string sound. Would that more European orchestras, let alone others, could sound so at home with Beethoven. The exposition was taken relatively swiftly, again confounding or at least calling into question (my) expectations, without sounding in the slightest hard-driven. Finely articulated throughout and always impeccably goal-oriented – if ever one needed a single adjective for Beethoven it should surely be that – the reading was perhaps slightly more Haydnesque in spirit than I might have expected, certainly more so than Barenboim’s recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin. (It will be interesting to compare that with his recent WEDO recording.) I have wondered from time to time why Barenboim has not performed more Haydn; this performance suggested in no uncertain terms that he should, Haydn needsing advocates almost as much as Schoenberg, for whose cause Barenboim has offered unwavering support. Anyway, back to Beethoven. The line of his work was unbroken throughout, which should go without saying, but which is sadly a cause for jubilation, astonishment even, in an age of pseudo-‘authenticity’. There was development in the development section - a rarer thing than one might expect - and the coda acted as it should, aspiring towards the status of a second development. Further testament towards Barenboim’s rethinking was the almost courtly quality characterising the slow movement, adorable in its post-Mozartian poise and beauty. There were, of course, sterner responses, where Haydn’s shadow, not least from trumpets and drums, loomed larger, but the abiding memory remained that of the opening. The scherzo as so often proved perhaps the most unambiguously Beethovenian movement, peering at least as far into the future as the Seventh Symphony. Its propulsion was all the more impressive given that Barenboim did not mistake tempo for driving too hard. I do not recall ever having heard more delectable woodwind – well, save from the Vienna Philharmonic – in a trio that really stopped one’s heartbeat. Expectancy was once more the hallmark of the finale’s introduction, yet it led well-nigh perfectly, without undue portentousness, into the exposition proper. Weight emerged from within the music rather than being applied to it. The spirit of Beethoven was here, no doubt: what humanity, what life force emanating not only from every note but from its connection with every other. That, surely, is a fitting metaphor for the work of this miraculous orchestra. (Armchair nay-sayers know what they can do.)

The last time I had heard Dérive 2 had been under the direction of the composer himself, in aconcert of Boulez and Carter to mark the latter’s hundred birthday. Rather to my surprise, I found myself more readily, indeed rapturously, responding to Barenboim’s performance. How much was a matter of the context, it is difficult to say, but thoughts concerning Boulez’s often overlooked relationship towards Beethoven surfaced and informed my reaction. (Anyone wishing to sample Boulez’s Beethovenian credentials should listen to his excellent recording of the Fifth Symphony, praised to the skies by no less a musician than Sviatoslav Richter, yet never released on CD. I live in hope that some day Boulez’s Proms performance of the Missa Solemnis will be made available to hear.) Bar the coughing and an often fidgety audience – at least it did not applaud in the middle of the work, as it had during the Beethoven – I was more or less immediately reminded how, almost but not quite paradoxically, the problematical acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall will often favour chamber or ensemble pieces to all but the largest-scale symphonic works. One is drawn in rather than alienated. Barenboim’s performance pulsated with life, a tribute to the efforts of his WEDO musicians, whether Michael Barenboim on violin, whose contributions varied between Soldier’s Tale-like Stravinskian echoes to fully-fledged soaring lyricism, his string section companions, Ori Kam and Kyril Zlotnikov, about whom much the same might be said, joyful tuned percussion brought to us antiphonally by Dominic Oelze and Noya Schleien, or the almost jazzy (Ebony Concerto or Bartók’s Contrasts?) clarinet-playing of Jussef Eisa. I could and probably should have gone on to name every soloist, each one a virtuoso, a protagonist, and above all a musician. Boulez’s harmonies were relished without being milked, the hallmark of a fine post-Debussy musician, whether as conductor or composer. Purpose, which if not exactly Beethovenian, might conceivably be considered inspired or at least possessing kinship, was indelibly present throughout the three-quarters of an hour of this challengingly extended score. (Its first version was considerably shorter.) The sheer catchiness of some of the melodic threads should not but doubtless would have surprised some; let us hope that this example will send many running to other masterpieces from the Boulez canon. Perpetual transformation, the examples of Liszt and Wagner especially evident, brought to mind other instances within Boulez’s œuvres – the orchestral Notations, for instance – and operated as a highly dramatic force. As for the final unison: what a master-stroke!

Beethoven’s Second Symphony opened with duly imposing chords, responded to in melting – dare I say ‘feminine’, courting the gendered response of Susan McClary? – fashion. There was an apt sense of a tonal world ripe for exploration. Arrival and departure were signalled by the onset of the first movement exposition. Tension never let up, a quality that went hand in hand with a sense of spaciousness that occasionally recalled to me the Beethoven of Sir Colin Davis. The eruption of the coda stood unmistakeably in Furtwänglerian lineage. Wamth, soulfulness, and above all command of line characterised the slow movement. Rhetoric was integrated into the hole and all the more powerful for it; I could not help but contrast Barenboim’s performance with the hapless, almost bizarre, lack of harmonic rhythm one hears when Nikolaus Harnoncourt, far from the worst of his ilk, attacks Beethoven. The movement flowed – I suspect that it was taken relatively swiftly, though have no timings to back that up – yet by the same token effortlessly took its time, emphasising its Romantic scale. There was, moreover, a fine sense of chamber music writ large, a homage to the Classical divertimento. The scherzo again was unmistakeably from Beethoven’s stable, in concision, tension, and downright explosive quality. The dialectical struggle of the trio – vulgarly, between the delectable woodwind material and the whirlwind vortex of Romantic strings – would surely have come close to satisfying Adorno, or at least Hegel. I love Michael Gielen’s bracingly modernist way with the finale, but Barenboim’s old-world narrative wanted little in drama. Moreover, his Haydnesque approach of string figuration paid analytical as well as characterful dividends. I was left marvelling not only at the remarkably deep German sound Barenboim could draw from his orchestra but, more importantly still, at the staggering originality, whatever Beethoven’s roots, of his symphonic writing. Roll on the next concert.