Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1-9
Of Barenboim’s many achievements, the greatest may turn out to be the creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a rather mysterious title for the young people from Middle Eastern countries, including crucially Palestine and Israel, who gather each summer to perform together. As this set of Beethoven symphonies shows, the orchestra is technically on the highest level. It meets all of Barenboim’s demands, which are no fewer than if he were conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle or any other of his regular orchestras. So what of the quality of interpretation?
These are the most old-fashioned performances of the works that I have listened to in a very long time. They make the self-styled arch-traditionalist Christian Thielemann, with the Vienna Philharmonic, sound positively modern. They also highlight the problems that a conductor faces when he is such a passionate admirer of a previous interpreter that he can’t escape their approach. In this instance, Barenboim has fallen under the spell of Furtwängler: several of these performances are virtually carbon copies of Barenboim’s great predecessor, except that Furtwängler is inimitable. What sounds spontaneous, natural and exhilarating from him can sound laboured, even leaden, from his imitators. Here, for instance, Eroica’s first movement is so close to Furtwängler’s that the heavy accents on its great first-movement climaxes, with violently dissonant chords almost spread, come across as mere brutal thumps. And in the Fifth Symphony, the opening motto theme is played at half the tempo of the rest of the movement, another anachronism.
Surprisingly, it’s the even-numbered symphonies, especially numbers Two (which Furtwängler disliked and rarely performed) and Four, which come off best, while Six is a very leisurely country stroll and Eight lacks wit. But I must admit there are many fine things in the Ninth, that ultimate challenge. Elsewhere Barenboim lets the timpanist bash away at the expense of the rest of the orchestra, but here everything is balanced, and with an excellent chorus and a decent quartet of soloists, the last movement is an inspiration. In short, despite serious shortcomings, this is a worthwhile and often moving set.