Tuesday, 24 July 2012

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.