Prom 10: Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4

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Daniel Barenboim with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

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The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999, has reached its troubled teens. A provocative symbol of hope against a tragically deadlocked political background, it’s also been accused of providing ‘utopian entertainment’ for a Western audience, a fantasy of social harmony that bears no relation to the reality of the Middle East.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of Daniel Barenboim’s intentions: the fact that all the players (except his son, the leader Michael) are not named on the programme is an indication of the personal bravery each has shown in joining the orchestra. But they represent an ambitious, privileged, musical elite: how can their shared experience inspire those on the ground? According to their biography, the last time they touched down in Ramallah was 2005…

As if determined to prove the project hadn’t gone stale, Barenboim mixed Beethoven with Boulez in this historic series of Proms programmes. It’s been an inspired move, shaking up the adoring audience and challenging the young players. But, in Saturday’s concert at least, the inclusion of Boulez (Dialogue de l’ombre double) only highlighted the heavily dated performance style of Beethoven’s Third and Fourth symphonies.

Barenboim has never pretended to be interested in the findings of the period performance movement. For him Beethoven’s music is a ‘universal metaphysical language’ and his avowed attitude is that of a 19th-century German Romantic. So we had a grandiose, leaden-footed reading of the Eroica, almost stifled by the heavy, sustained bowing of the strings, a performance that would not have been out of place half a century ago, but lacked the thrilling grandeur that approach could generate. Rhythms were slack in the Allegro first movement, at times appearing to slide around each other like sea-sick passengers on a slippery deck. In the portentous slow movement, entries began to feel strangely staggered and the on-the-string bowing prevented detail coming through in the final Presto

An opulent Symphony No. 4 fared better. The gorgeous liquid wobble of a bassoon gilded a well paced, apprehensive opening, which never exploded into life with the Allegro, but remained earth-bound if well drilled. Soft-grained, legato strings in the slow movement provided an ideal backdrop to some beautifully sustained, elastic clarinet solos. Scherzo and Finale danced gracefully, but lacked edge and air. The quality and response of these players is on the highest level; what perplexes is the type of sound Barenboim requires of them. Call me old fashioned, but I rather like to hear all the notes.

While the first of these concerts featured Boulez’s 50-minute Dérive 2, which ended up dominating the concert by all accounts, this time the Boulez was a subtle palate freshener, Dialogue de l’ombre double (1982-85) for clarinet, played by German virtuoso Jussef Eisa, with computer music designers from IRCAM. As in many of Boulez’s pieces, this was a lone instrumentalist duetting with himself pre-recorded, broadcast from points around the hall, originally inspired by the sound of Gregorian chant in a church acoustic. Eisa made light of simultaneous flutter-tonguing and harmonics, and delivered the beguiling, Debussyan arabesques with resonant poise. 

Listen to this Prom again on iPlayer. The BBC Proms run every day until 8 September.

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace