Prom 48 and 49: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Barenboim - Royal Albert Hall, 21 August 2009
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra exists to prove that music can and should be blind to extraneous politics - a message underlined by Daniel Barenboim's opening salvo in their two-night Proms residency. Liszt's Les préludes was one of Hitler's favourites - its fanfare prefaced German victory broadcasts. Although it contains enough hollow bombast to justify that dubious endorsement, Barenboim dwelled on its more rhapsodic qualities, lending a long-phrased Wagnerian glow.
The orchestra played with precision and finesse. No doubt we in London benefited from being the last stop on their annual tour. But it was clear throughout the evening that rehearsal had been detailed, and that after ten years together, this orchestra has bonded into a team that can match most full-time professional orchestras. Woodwind intonation is shaky here and there, but the strings are warm and glowing, and there's a Germanic solidity to the growling basses that from time to time put me in mind of the Berlin Philharmonic. Barenboim's decision to include musicians of widely varying experience is justified. There's no second-best here - everyone aspires to the standard of the highest.
The reductio ad hitlerum twerps were dealt a second blow with a bit of Wagner - the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Although the playing was once again nuanced and often delicate, Barenboim couldn't make his superslow tempo work. When the pace drops, poise and momentum are needed to prevent it falling flat, like pursuit cyclists creeping forward yet ready to spring at an instant. Instead it dragged, the orchestra all too willingly submitting to Barenboim's stern brake.
Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique was again richly detailed, with exquisitely taken solos and an inspired placement of the final movement's bells in the rear gallery area. But the audience's restlessness between movements testified to a hint of fatigue in the playing - a testament to the orchestra's hectic schedule over the past few days.
No surprise then that despite the inevitable ovation, Barenboim announced there would be no encore - or rather that the second performance of the evening would be the encore.
The handful of players who returned for the second concert seemed raring to go. The sheer muscularity of Mendelssohn's all-string Octet bore the Barenboim hallmark even though he wasn't there to conduct it. The subtleties of chamber music can get lost in the enormity of the Royal Albert Hall, but this seemed ideally scaled. Like Barenboim's Mendelssohn concert at the Lindenoper earlier this year, it proved that more guts and less gentility can help shed the chocolate-boxy image Mendelssohn has acquired, especially in this country.
The woodwinds got their turn with Berg's Chamber Concerto. Karim Said was the assured piano soloist, allying clear and robust articulation with an intelligence of phrasing way beyond his years. The orchestra's leader Michael Barenboim spent the interval between concerts smoking a stinky pipe outside the stage door - lucky he's not a wind player - but returned as the intensely expressive violin soloist, throwing off the tricky writing with almost indecent ease.
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