Michael Barenboim

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The leader of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on playing Beethoven

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In August 2010, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim launched the ‘Beethoven for All’ tour. Encompassing performances of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies in four continents, it culminates with a complete Symphony cycle at this year’s Proms. And the orchestra’s recording of these iconic works is out as part of the ‘Beethoven for All’ cycle on Decca Classics on 18 June.

What has it been like to be involved in this Beethoven project?
It was planned several years in advance, to take place over a number of years, not just one summer. So, the first time we did the whole cycle was in Buenos Aires two summers ago. It's the first time for this orchestra that we had the chance to work on something like this over the span of years.

And this deep involvement with the works has presumably changed your relationship with them?
Yes I think for a lot – actually for all – of the members of the orchestra it was a great learning experience. And also often when you learn something thoroughly, and then you leave it for a few months, and then you take it back, you get to a whole new level of understanding. So when we played it last summer, we probably played it differently than how we played it two summers ago and this summer we’ll probably play it yet differently again. In that way it develops in, I hope, a positive way.

Michael BarenboimUnder the umbrella title 'Beethoven for all', you've been touring in four continents. How do different audiences react?
The idea is that as different as the people in different countries might be, their reactions must have something similar. Otherwise we would probably have to play differently for each audience, which we don’t. So, in a way, there is always a similarity in the reaction, some human response that resembles everywhere else, whether in South Korea or Argentina. Of course there are different traditions, for example, the classic thing with whether to clap between the movements, but there’s a human reaction to music which is universal I would say. That’s why it’s ‘Beethoven For All’ as in a sense it’s music that is written for all humanity.

And this set of the Symphonies was recorded when you were playing in Cologne...
We played all Nine Symphonies there in five concerts and I remember it being all very tiring. Because of the recording we had to play everything twice: in the morning we had to play the programme that we would play in the evening. And it’s not something that’s really easy to do over a span – you can do it one day, or two days – but if you have to do that for a whole week, it’s quite tiring. And we like to work in a lot of detail; to work very hard. But I think that it was also a great journey for the orchestra, you really had to push yourself. I remember being very happy. 

In a nutshell, could you give an overview of Beethoven's Symphonies?
Of course there are similarities between all the Symphonies as they’re written by the same composer, but each one has its own idiom and principal idea. In that sense they are completely different. If you think, the Seventh Symphony and the Eighth Symphony were written almost one after the other, and when you listen to them they bear almost no resemblance to each other. It's also interesting to see the development of Beethoven as a composer, from the First via the milestone of the Third to the Ninth, which is a completely other kind of writing than before. Also there are certain gestures and characters that he develops that get more and more present, or less and less present. Unlike Haydn and Mozart Symphonies, each forms a world of its own, its own universe.

Michael BarenboimThe West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is founded on the idea of 'equality, cooperation and justice' for all, with Arab and Israeli musicians sitting side by side. What is it like to play in this ensemble?
There’s something that comes from grouping people from that region - [Israel, Palestine and the Middle East] - which you don’t have from Germany, England or France. But there’s also a certain energy and drive that stems from the situation in the region, and also all the members are people who really want to be in the orchestra. They stand behind it and give 100 per cent every time, so that, of course, creates an atmosphere that’s very intense. When we rehearse it's only about the music and getting the best result. But also we see music not as something separate from life but something that's integrated into society. It can take you out of your social environment, but it can also explain and make you understand it. 

How influential has your father, Daniel Barenboim, been on your musical life?
I am lucky to have enjoyed a very thorough and good musical education, and a lot of that is thanks to him. It's also thanks to the Divan orchestra. I started coming to it when I was 14, and so I can more or less say that my musical development, and my instrumental development, happened there.  My violin teacher was the coach for the first violins there, for example, and I learned a lots of things about music in general. And I’m very privileged to have someone like my father to ask questions to like that, and who can help me for anything.

The orchestra will be returning to the Proms across five concerts this summer. How’s that going to be?
For me personally, the experience of playing at the Proms has always been overwhelming. It’s not only because of the number of people that are there, it’s that the atmosphere in this place is so special you really want to come back as much as you can. I’ve never come anything remotely close to this feeling anywhere else and I’m not only saying that because it’s you. But it’s really true – it’s something special that happens there, I can’t really explain it. And I wouldn’t want to miss it. I mean, we’ve played there before and each time it was amazing, for us. I hope for them, the audience, also.

'Beethoven for All' is out on 18 June on Decca Classics and is available on iTunes at the special price of £9.99 only for two weeks.

James Naughtie talks to Daniel Barenboim in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine, out now.

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Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine.

Rebecca Franks