Prom 44 – West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Concerto in F for three pianos, K242
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano)
Shai Wosner (piano)

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Music is supposedly the food of love. It is, unfortunately, not likely to be a panacea for the settling of conflict. Music can, of course, be wonderful in its healing powers and in its capability to achieve and comment. Specifically, in relation to Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra “made up of young Arab and Israeli musicians” (its members not listed in the programme, an oversight or for security reasons?), this praiseworthy initiative probably won’t make too much impression on warring factions – yet, as a symbolist act, it speaks volumes.

An occasion, then, as much as a concert. The emphasis on the universality and timelessness of the chosen repertoire might perhaps have been more varied, yet there was no doubting the players were totally committed to the cause and played with enthusiasm and concentration to demonstrate the import of the music itself and its re-creative powers for successive generations.

Daniel Barenboim’s own lineage includes a palpable relationship to music’s tradition – how it has grown and developed rather than how it started; he is a devotee of Wilhelm Furtwängler rather than a ’back to basics’ merchant. In this concert he was true to music’s ability to ’become something’ and shrewd enough to not be a discursive interpreter and expect his players to follow an ultra-personal groundplan.

Centrally placed was the Mozart. On reflection, Barenboim didn’t really need to demonstrate his well-known pianistic abilities. The third piano part, which Barenboim played, of this Mozart concerto is negligible – and the work itself does witter on to no great effect. Maybe the two-piano work (K365), an infinitely finer piece, would have been a better choice – then the two young pianists (one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian) would have had more limelight than their ’in the orchestra’ positioning allowed on this occasion.

The symphonies received readings that were well proportioned, generously expressed and vibrant. The Schubert, moving forward but also threatening to stand still, was massively sounded and objectively garnered. What the playing lacked in identifiable character was made up for with some personable wind and horn solos, lucid and lively string timbres and demonstrative trombones and timpani. Barenboim had ’schooled’ his players well; this Unfinished had both recognisable antecedents and straightforwardness. Yet, in some ways, moved rather too easily to make its full impression.

This January, when Barenboim played all the Brahms symphonies in London with Staatskapelle Berlin, there were passages that were cloned from Furtwängler as well as some quite startling interpretative decisions that ranged from the illuminating to the irritating. Barenboim didn’t indulge on this occasion but projected the music with healthy communication. The Beethoven was indeed heroic and surprisingly quick in the first movement, although this and the succeeding ’funeral march’ took a while to find themselves. Barenboim’s forecast fell into something of a groove but there was no doubting the power or the absorption of the conception. Hammer blows and trenchancy, and lyrical warmth and implication, were melded as the music’s parameters – the funeral procession was for mankind as a whole. By contrast, the scherzo enjoyed a trio of horns that were roisteringly confident. An Eroica in the grand manner that compelled attention and, in context, hit the spot.

Generous to a fault, Barenboim returned for a loving but not indulged B flat Entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde and, the so-far-unused bass drum and cymbals indicating yet more, the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville, a reference to the location where the orchestra had been preparing. I thought Rossini’s percussion had been discredited as dubious … no matter it was a rumbustious account, the rampaging trombones straying in from William Tell’s storm music.

The concert as a whole was a well-intentioned and well-made statement. It was preaching to the converted, but hopefully the ’message’ permeated beyond the Royal Albert Hall.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 26 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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