Barenboim’s Beethoven Nine

Historic symphony cycle comes to an end

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Can there have been a more exciting place to be on the evening of Friday 27 July than the centre of London? With the opening ceremony of the Olympics just hours away, the anticipation on the streets of the capital was palpable. And what better way to lead into the ceremony than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

Daniel Barenboim took to the podium for the final time at this year’s Proms to conduct the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – made up of Arab and Israeli musicians – and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (NYC) in Beethoven’s effusive masterpiece.

The atmosphere inside the Royal Albert Hall was electric and even before a note had been played, the applause that greeted orchestra and conductor was heartfelt and generous. In short, this felt like an occasion from the outset.

As such, any quibbles with Barenboim’s interpretation seem mean-spirited – but the first movement was taken at such a broad tempo that it seemed to lose its momentum and the Symphony’s lighter moments were sacrificed to a sense of gravitas. But it was that gravitas, in the end, that made the sense of occasion so irresistible.

Barenboim’s authoritative performance, combined with the overtly political West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the decision to use the National Youth Choir, meant this was music as political statement.

René Pape’s entry with ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne’ (O friends, no more of these sounds) was thrilling (and seemingly effortless), as were the contributions of soprano Anna Samuil and tenor Michael König (who stood in at the last minute for Peter Seiffert). Credit also has to go to the sopranos of the NYC for keeping their cool while holding the incredibly high top notes of the final movement in Barenboim’s expansive tempo.

As the explosive final section came to an end the audience leapt to their feet – in support of the brave young musicians of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, Barenboim’s intelligently programmed cycle and, of course, Beethoven’s exuberant hymn to joy. And as I walked out of the doors of the Royal Albert Hall the Red Arrows roared over Hyde Park streaming red, white and blue behind them.