Beethoven’s Choral Symphony – West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim

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Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Angela Denoke (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Burkhard Fritz (tenor)
René Pape (bass)

Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim

Recorded live on 27 August 2006 in the Philharmonie, Berlin


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
2564 63927-2
Duration: 72 minutes

Hot off the press – performed in late August 2006 and issued just over a month later – apart from the continuing significance of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (see link below) and Daniel Barenboim’s impressive association with it, this is a much-needed ‘different’ viewpoint of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony.

In today’s ‘historically-informed’ times, the chances are high that Beethoven’s symphonies will be rendered with less-than-full forces, that the tempos will be ‘fast’, and that uniformity rather than individuality will be the outcome. As such, a far cry from the conception of, say, Wilhelm Furtwängler, of whom Daniel Barenboim is an avowed admirer.

Recorded live, Barenboim invests mystery into the opening bars and sanctions spacious speeds and massive sonorities. He also indulges tempo fluctuations, which won’t be to all tastes, but which certainly make something of the music. This is not Beethoven fitting the notes into the ‘click’ of his metronome; rather it is Beethoven’s music living and breathing, and, instead, filling the (too) ambient space of the Philharmonie Berlin with meaningful utterance rather than being a lecture on the music, however scholarly.

From Barenboim, the first movement is something of a leviathan; the climactic development is thunderous as seismic waves of sound pour forth. By contrast, the scherzo is light and fleet, but it is not rushed off its feet and has a spring in it step; and the trio – which arrives too soon (i.e. Barenboim doesn’t repeat the second half of the scherzo, a grievous loss) – may be under-tempo (in a strict interrelationship sense) but carries an expressive charge.

Also arriving too soon is the Adagio, by dint of too short a gap between it and the preceding scherzo – silence is golden – and Barenboim’s conducting of it is of ‘heavenly length’, gently burgeoning the music into poetic life and allowing its growth to be organic and not harried. Those who can now only listen to this music with ‘authentic’ ears will probably find Barenboim hopelessly ‘slow’ and Romantic; yet the music yields so much more when realised like this – and it is much more relevant (not though the bleep of a digital watch, at 8’22”). And not to forget, also, the bloom and radiance that a full-string section playing with vibrato can generate.

The finale – setting Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – is, under Barenboim, a rhetorical affair, a little staid at times, rampant at others. Quite what Barenboim was after at the point when the double basses launch the ‘ode to joy theme’ (from 3’19”) is difficult to determine. The sound here is ghostly and bleached (as if from the grave) and akin to a poorly made, over-processed transfer of analogue material (pianissimo bass being something that suffers most in those circumstances), and is not especially convincing; and there are some distant chimes, too, from 3’39” to 3’42”! But once the movement is into its stride, majestic eloquence takes over – and with some reassuring ‘bad habits’ when it comes to performing Beethoven’s music! Not all the tempo changes ‘work’, but they are indicative of Barenboim’s lively mind: he has a view – like it or not – of this seminal work that is not glued to what the score or editors say; rather, Barenboim prefers an ‘unwritten’ and instinctive approach.

René Pape’s initial entry is of questionable pitch (ironic when the words are “O friends! Not these sounds!”), and the soloists in consort tend to cover the orchestra – as much to do with the acoustic as anything else; and similarly the choral-singing, unrestrained if rather hectoring, also reveals an imbalance in favour of voices. However, the music’s spirit is caught. The work’s close is signalled by burst of vitality, then a reduction of tempo for jubilant purposes, and a pushed-hard orchestral coda (like Furtwängler but not as shambolic). 40 seconds of applause is retained.

The playing of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is sometimes a little tentative – Barenboim makes no concessions in his demands – but there is no doubting that the young musicians respond with dedication and responsiveness to Barenboim’s very particular concept of sound, blend and ‘sostenuto’.

This is not a performance for everyday – but the work itself isn’t either, of course – but it is an important corrective to small-scale and pretty accounts of Beethoven (generally speaking). Reservations aside about the Philharmonie’s extra reverberation and timbre-swelling ‘new’ acoustic – all due to a change of platform, it seems – the recording captures the massiveness of this performance with certainty. The double basses (positioned left, and violins are antiphonal) offer a full and firm foundation. Barenboim conducting this music ‘his’ way is engrossing and illuminating – and it’s good to have it.

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