Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 4 August, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
For all its symbolism, and hopefully something rather more than that, the aims and ambitions of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are first and foremost musical ones: the Middle East’s political divides are eschewed for a union of musical talent, which speaks volumes for cultural interaction. Once the music starts, that is what matters. And it mattered considerably at this concert, the orchestra’s members fresh from a residency in Seville and radiating learning and conviction, and donating the wonderful power of music in no uncertain terms.
In this concert presented by the “London Review of Books” in memory of Edward Said, who with Daniel Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, two familiar masterworks were presented with significant import. Speeches preceded the concert, including one from Edward Said’s widow, and there was a tangibly expectant ambience in the sold-out hall (there having been quite a queue for returns).
I refer you to my interview with Daniel Barenboim for a little more on Mr Said and the orchestra. For all the particular circumstances of this orchestra’s formation, and the ‘message’ that it brings, the music-making here was world-class. With his piano nestling into the strings, his back to the audience, Barenboim’s vivid conducting of Beethoven’s lengthy orchestral exposition immediately announced the orchestra’s quality, its razor-sharp response to dynamics, detail, sonority, moods, and to the dramatic and tender requirements of Barenboim. As pianist, he was in bold and reflective mood, and gave a wide-ranging account of the solo part, one with demonstrative outbursts and magical pianissimos, the young musicians partnering him with confidence and characterful input. Barenboim’s hushed solos in the slow movement were profound, and his measured tempo for the finale ideal, the concerto culminating in irrepressible high spirits.
Barenboim’s use of antiphonal violins, the double basses placed to left, made for telling dialogue in both works, the Tchaikovsky given with drama and romantic bloom, and well-judged tempos allowed seamless transitions. It’s so easy to sectionalise and make sentimental this music; Barenboim conducted it with love, romance and purpose, and his segueing of the movements made musical sense. Indeed, although he toyed somewhat with the ‘Waltz’ third movement, and there was a certain impulsiveness, it all seemed part of the overall design: the charge to the final bars was thrilling and crowned with superb brass, this section responding so well to Barenboim’s requirement for sostenuto bell-like fortissimos. The stylish playing throughout was a joy – not least from the solo horn at the start of the Andante cantabile (by policy, none of the musicians were named in the programme) – and proved a wonderful testimony to the spirit of this orchestra, its relationship with Barenboim, and his abilities to mould an ensemble and encourage individuals to shine.
A standing ovation followed – for once absolutely in keeping with the performances given. Barenboim made a short, persuasive speech saying that what is right for the Palestinians should be right for the Israelis and vice versa, and he hoped that those people who didn’t see things that way would soon do so. He then conducted Sibelius’s Valse triste and, finally, the omnipresent pair of unused harps and some forsaken percussion got a chance in a marvellous account of the overture to Verdi’s Force of Destiny – rarely has a piece of music been so appositely titled. What a shame that the BBC couldn’t have shunted a few microphones over from the Albert Hall, for this was an inspired evening that shouldn’t now be the exclusive preserve of those who attended.