Saturday 11 November 2023

West-Eastern Divan Ensemble/Barenboim M. - Hindemith, Carter, Hensel, and Beethoven, 9 November 2023

Pierre Boulez Saal

Hindemith: Trauermusik for viola and strings
Fanny Hensel: String Quartet in E-flat major
Carter: Au Quai for bassoon and viola; Duettone for violin and cello
Beethoven: Septet in E-flat major, op.20

Michael Barenboim (violin, viola)
Miriam Manaserhov (viola)
Assif Binness (cello)
David Santos Luque (double bass)
Daniel Gurfinkel (clarinet)
Mor Biron (bassoon)
Ben Goldscheider (horn)

Images: Peter Adamik

9 November is a date full, too full, of resonance for German history. From the proclamation of the Republic in 1918 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it takes in also the Munich putsch of 1923 and the November pogroms of 1938. At the best of times, whenever they might be, it is impossible not to feel conflicted and at times close to overwhelmed by the imperatives of remembrance; and these, I hardly need add, are anything but the best of times. On the 85th anniversary of what English-speaking countries still refer to as Kristallnacht, although in Germany the term is now generally held to conceal the full horror of what happened that night, even the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble playing Beethoven might have struggled to impart much in the way of hope. Yet somehow, ultimately, these musicians did: not in the sense that they offered a solution to our world’s cruelty, carnage, and apparently irredeemable darkness, whether then or now, of course not. As Daniel Barenboim, co-founder with Edward Said of the orchestra from which this chamber ensemble draws its members, noted in a typically inspiring piece written for the programme, they ‘never intended … [it] to be a political project. It was always a humanistic one, a call against ignorance. It may have seemed like a utopian idea then and perhaps appears even more so today.’

But that they were still here at all, let alone playing, listening and responding was something—and increasingly so. ‘Here, in this building, this utopia,’ Barenboim continued, ‘is alive every day. Our young musicians, whether they come from Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Damascus, or Cairo, work and study under the same roof and learn to listen to each other, in music just as in daily life—something that is impossible in their home countries. It takes courage for them to be here.’ It does indeed, and their courage as well as their broader example offers an example to the audience too, although it is for us, not for them, to lead our struggle to listen rather than merely to hear.


A late addition to the programme was Hindemith’s Trauermusik: in Barenboim’s words, ‘our collective expression of grief, but also of hope’. And so it sounded; so it felt. Indeed, the sadness in the first of its four short movements seemed almost unbearable. Was it ‘there’, in the work, or was it what we brought to it? Impossible to answer, and not the most relevant of questions. Michael Barenboim, leading from solo viola, and a string quartet representing Hindemith’s orchestra inhabited the composer’s universe fully, dignity of craft, ensemble, counterpoint, and harmony, and what they might mean to the fore—and beyond that, the universal musical imperative to listen. Hindemith’s use of music from Mathis der Maler reinforced all the more the importance of witness against fascism, against murderous, antihuman ideology. Crisis tends to reinforce what is essential, if only we will take time to find out. Inner movements’ lyricism in particular grew out of that early material, a necessary, human development. The final chorale, ‘Für deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’, offered not triumph, but modest climax in human fragility. It was met with prolonged silence and, eventually, respectful applause. 

Fanny Hensel’s 1834 E-flat major Quartet was an interesting choice, its first movement, ‘Adagio ma non troppo’, opening again with nobility and dignity. Was the sadness with which it seemed to be imbued…? We have already answered that question, or rather observed that answer there can be none. At any rate, the proportion of time spent in the minor mode seemed fitting. Expansive, without dragging, the quartet, again led by Michael Barenboim, seemed very much to have its measure, subtleties telling without exaggeration. The following Allegretto comes closer to Mendelssohn, though it is perhaps both a little more conventional yet also quirkier. Beethoven too came to mind at times (as he often does in Mendelssohn’s own quartets too). There was scope for considerable virtuosity, well taken, within a collegial framework. An eloquent account of the ‘Romanze’, Barenboim first melodist among equals, again permitted reference to other composers, Mendelssohn and Mozart among them, without ever being reducible to them and their ‘influence’. The finale came as close as anything had yet done to good cheer. Sometimes smiling, sometimes sterner, even vehement, it offered plenty of light and shade in a finely directed performance.


Either side of the interval came two short works by Elliott Carter. Barenboim’s viola and Mor Biron’s bassoon were very much equals in Au Quai from 2002, Carter a still relatively young 93 at the time of writing. A game of post-Webern ping-pong led to almost Stravinskian melodic flowering, not that the music ever sounded ‘like’ either. Instead, it emerged as something akin to a reinvention, as it were, of a Bach Two-Part Invention, and was despatched as well as composed with a good deal of dry wit. For Duettone, Barenboim was joined by the similarly excellent cellist Assif Binness. It is perhaps too easy to romanticise, but this little gem from Carter’s 101st year truly sounded like the distillation of a lifetime’s work, not least with respect to his metrical discoveries and explorations. Within its modest frame – though think again of Webern – it seemed to come close to possessing the weight, contrasts, and journey of a symphony. Every combination of notes, and indeed of other parameters, was both fresh and deeply considered. Here, in two solo lines, was something suggesting comparison with one of Bach’s mirror fugues. 

It is difficult to characterise Beethoven’s Septet without resorting to ‘sunny’, and why try? After all, sun affects us in different ways at different times, and necessarily casts a shadow too. The ‘Adagio’ introduction to the first movement was strikingly expansive, rather as if it were taken ‘after’ Barenboim père, and frankly all the better for it. Neither faster nor slower than it ought to be, the movement as whole offered space for a lightness of touch and responsiveness lying at the heart of ethical and musical challenges alike. Line was present throughout in a performance replete with contrasts and sheer delights. The second movement, taken a little slower than is often the case, again benefited from greater space: heavenly length maybe, heavenly without question. Initially led by Daniel Gurfinkel’s quicksilver, liquid clarinet, it afforded all members of the ensemble opportunities to shine, to support, and as ever to listen and respond. Lilt properly verging on swing, conveyed via excellent textural balance born of such listening and response, characterised the minuet and trio. The ensuing theme and variations, in their transformational variety of instrumental combination similarly proposed a lightly worn moral as well as ‘purely’ musical lesson. Buoyant and in the best sense infectious, the scherzo, led by Ben Goldscheider’s miraculous horn playing, was both directed and collegial. Likewise a finale of stature and character which, like the performance as a whole, never forgot the sheer enjoyment to be had from such music, enjoyment that spilled into an encore performance of the Scherzo from Schubert’s Octet.


To return to Daniel Barenboim’s words in the programme, ‘We must, want, and will continue to believe that music can bring us closer together as fellow human beings.’ For all who continue to believe, there is no alternative.