Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Anna Samuil (soprano), Waltraud Maier (mezzo-soprano), Peter Seiffert (tenor) & Wolfgang Koch (bass)
Vocalensemble Kölner Dorn
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Recorded 23-28 August 2011 in Philharmonie, Köln [Cologne]
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: August 2012
CD No: DECCA 478 3511 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 57 minutes
The accompanying literature for a set of this nature normally confines itself to musical analysis together with brief information about artists and orchestra but in this case it is entirely suitable that the booklet commences with a full description by Daniel Barenboim of the provenance of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded in 1999 by himself and Edward Said. Since its creation, Argentinean-born Barenboim has been at the musical helm and the principle of combining musicians from many middle-eastern countries is admirable. The orchestra is made up of a mix of musicians from Palestinian and Israeli cultures and it also includes players from such countries as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Barenboim must surely be delighted to have had the opportunity to train musicians with no previous experience of European culture to become such a unified ensemble and it is intriguing to observe the extent to which this multicultural assembly of players approximates to the sound of a central European Orchestra. There is a surprisingly dark weightiness about the sonority: something like the tone of certain German orchestras.
The interpretations are strongly reminiscent of the approach taken to Beethoven’s symphonies some forty or fifty years ago. Barenboim has said that certain aspects of the interpretations by Furtwängler and by Klemperer have influenced him and it is no surprise that his tempos tend in general towards the breadth which was a feature of the readings of those two great conductors. The outcome is not exactly like the performances of either however. Like Furtwängler, Barenboim takes great care about the way in which one theme proceeds subtly towards the next yet the considerable freedom of tempo that Furtwängler permitted himself is not so evident. There is also a solidity of articulation typical of Klemperer but not the absolute firmness of tempo.
In Symphony No.1 the orchestra sounds as though it is not perhaps as numerous as in later works and there are also moments when the violins seem modest. This is especially so in their quiet articulation during the Trio of the Minuet. In all, calmness pervades this friendly performance of the symphony. The first movement has rounding-off elements to ends of phrases – not exactly a tempo change, just a relaxation here and there for a note or two. The final climax with its ever-more insistent trumpet notes leading to a triumphant close is carefully balanced and when the big chords arrive they are warm and weighty – no Toscanini-like aggression here. Altogether this is an interesting reading; the firm pulse of the Minuet (a scherzo) is ideal but I have heard many readings more fiery than this well-balanced finale, here the sforzando chords are played with controlled confidence yet a little more ferocity would have been welcome. A curious thing happens at bar 60 where my score shows a held note for three bars with flute 1 and for six bars with flute 2. This can be heard at 1’10” into the movement. On the repeat at 2’26”, however, the first flute gives a series of trills.
The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is highly enjoyable. The easy tempo for the opening movement is ideal – a leisurely walk in the country – no haste and much subtlety of expression. Once again not all will approve the omitted repeat but at this spacious tempo the length of this Allegro ma non troppo when set against its companion movements remains proportionate. Sometimes Barenboim’s manipulations of tempo can be disturbing but here they are gentle and entirely consistent with the nature of the melodies. Much the same goes for the ‘Scene by the brook’ in which enormous care is taken over the birdsong. This is a very calm brook, but the sun is continuing to shed a comfortable glow over it. The Peasants are less bucolic than in other readings and the quiet start to their dance is followed by a winding up of tempo when the full orchestra joins in. The trio is no less rhythmic but here the recorded balance allows the strings to overwhelm the woodwind. On into the ‘Storm’ and here a feature of the traditional ‘pre-authentic’ orchestral sound has one particular advantage because, where previously I had felt that the use of harder timpani sticks would have been more in period, those used here clearly have modern padded heads and the result is a most convincing representation of thunder. Further, the conductor’s division of first and second violins to left and right respectively shows its value here. The finale is satisfyingly swift: perhaps an example of Furtwängler’s influence.
It is frustrating to have to keep mentioning the use of repeats but Barenboim is far from consistent in this respect. In Symphony No.7 the exposition section is played only once in the outer movements. The first two repeats of the scherzo are observed (more than was the habit fifty years ago) but these problems of proportion aside, the movements are strongly and convincingly rhythmic. Traditional slowing of tempo hindered the Allegro of the first movement for years but Barenboim is ideally firm and his broad speed also seems ideal – shades of the grandeur of Franz Konwitschny here. The Allegretto, though slower than that instruction implies, is equally strong in rhythm. One can usually take Beethoven’s metronome markings with a pinch of salt but surely the relative speeds should be helped by their guidance and the trio section is marked as two-thirds the speed of the surrounding scherzo. With Barenboim it is half and at the quiet end of each trio a gigantic rallentando leads to complete inactivity. The finale is not taken quickly but it is afforded a suitable amount of fury.
There is something calm and perhaps understated about this Eighth Symphony. My chief concern is that the orchestra sounds rather thick. Balance is mostly adequate but there are moments of cloudiness – especially at the recapitulation of the first movement where everything is marked fff and triumphantly the bass strings manage to combat the rest of the orchestra in full cry – a splendid piece of balancing and yet the woodwind detail in the following passage is rather murky. The Allegretto features surprisingly gentle strings but then the strong ticking of the woodwind is probably a good way of representing this metronome-inspired movement. Soft and gentle is the approach to the Minuet; even the brass and drum sforzandos towards its close are played down; and the ritardando before the trio is surprising but the horns manage to recover the tempo. The Barenboim characteristic of a slow ending to a trio does return however and the Minuet reprise sounds even smoother than before. Despite a certain amount of reserve the humorous nature of the finale is suitably recognised. The bassoon and timpani duets are biased against the drums but on the whole the light-hearted nature of the movement is achieved. There are other ways of interpreting it and I recall the impatient madness of Scherchen which goes beyond the mere adoption of a hectic pace. Barenboim’s pushing ahead for the last few pages is recognition of the eager nature of the music but there is still an element of reserve.
There are number of moments in Barenboim’s interpretation of the ‘Choral’ Symphony which many listeners may find surprisingly subjective; certainly there are places where the conductor’s realisation of this amazing score took me aback yet there is not the slightest doubt that he is devoted to this music. Clearly he is influenced by tradition, yet even when he deviates from the composer’s instructions I am convinced that this is his genuine feeling, not a mere subjective imposition upon the music. Much is open to discussion and there are certain matters to query but the opening immediately captures the listener’s sympathy. Far broader than usual it begins in a breathless hush as if mysteriously from a distance and the first tutti hits home with great power. Barenboim uses his very measured tempo to great effect as did his heroes Furtwängler and Klemperer. This is tense music-making and perhaps the opportunity to conduct so great a work with his own orchestra inspired Barenboim to explore it deeply; certainly he is able to enhance the first movement’s dramatic aspects. Occasionally the wonderfully hushed strings sink almost out of earshot but it is all in the cause of intense musical feeling. What then of one of music’s greatest moments – the terrifying recapitulation? Well Barenboim recognises the worth of this earth-shattering sequence, enhancing it slightly by stressing the down beats with the timpani and permitting them multiple crescendos. This is well-known way of rendering the passage and it is very effective. Beethoven only required the drums to be fortissimo throughout but these emphases are within the spirit of this amazing passage. Sooner or later however a challenging interpretative moment is to be expected and it is later that that some subjective elements creep in. At the horn solo the music begins to urge forward to the coda and then, at its commencement, the tempo slackens allowing the long crescendo enough space to take on a continuing accelerando. This is subjective conducting, but it seems to be with the best of intentions and is effective.
Now scherzos and minuets had been a strong point in these readings but this scherzo does not achieve that high standard: the tempo is easy-going the woodwind playing is less than precise and although the big moments with their timpani solos are well enough balanced they somehow lack impact. I don’t much care for the addition of horns to the upward sweeps of the woodwind, Toscanini did this but with much exaggeration, causing one critic to describe these phrases as “wild whoops”. Barenboim is not so outrageous but Beethoven never wrote these parts and his music works best without them. A big shock is the omission of the vital second repeat. Why observe only repeats 1, 3 and 4? It throws the balance of the movement askew. The trio goes a great deal slower than the required Presto but the flow into it from the scherzo is achieved successfully – the conductor’s characteristic holding back before the return of the scherzo is also featured.
Much sensitivity is applied to the slow movement – flexible certainly but with minimum contrast between the required differing speeds of the two main themes; this is fine music-making. I don’t fully understand the decision to underplay the big climaxes three-quarters of the way through – I feel sure that Beethoven intended suddenly to break the spell of the calm beauty of the music at these points and I was also surprised to hear a voice quietly interrupting the close of the second set of fanfares. Nevertheless this is a beautiful rendering of the movement – the slow ending is sensitive and effective.
The choral finale is far less reserved and occasionally wilful. The double basses seem a little prosaic in the recitatives and as so often the reference to the start of the first movement finds the winds completely blotting out the downward violin phrases. Barenboim is dramatic but eccentric is the vast pause before the quiet string announcement of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme of the finale – six whole seconds. The theme itself is enormously hushed and very slow; Beethoven simply requires it to be played piano and the tempo is Allegro assai but this speed is only achieved after a good deal of acceleration. Again the effect is dramatic but it is a very subjective view. Wolfgang Koch makes a confident initial declamation; the vocal quartet balances well between its members. Peter Seiffert is steadily heroic in the military episode (the cymbals and triangle are rather polite though). Convincingly forceful however are the brass and drums in their interjections within the triumphant unison choral restatement of the first verse (a point that Bruno Walter always made so effectively). Freedom of tempo between episodes is a feature throughout this movement. The chorus is clearly in focus – powerful when required. I forgive the loss in clarity of the words “über Sternen muss er wohnen” for the sake of the magical hush achieved at this point. The final vocal quartet avoids the strain so often evident and although vibrato is used it is controlled. An exciting coda ensues (shy high percussion notwithstanding). For all the surprisingly personal moments this is a considerable reading of the finale. A human voice seems sometimes to emanate from somewhere in the texture – even during choruses: could this be the conductor urging on the musicians?
There are times when I find it difficult to understand the conductor’s approach to some of these symphonies but admirable musicianship is evident throughout and every interpretation is of interest. I am left with great respect for Barenboim’s achievements with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and I particularly admire the conductor’s refusal to use his position to make political statements. He does not need to because the unity of these players from contrasting backgrounds and faiths says it all.