Octet in E flat for strings, Op.20
Kammerkonzert [Chamber Concerto for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments]
Karim Said (piano) & Michael Barenboim (violin)
Members of West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim [Berg]
Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel
Reviewed: 21 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This late-night BBC Prom and second offering of the evening from members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought together two contrasting masterpieces, separated by almost exactly a hundred years.
Mendelssohn’s Octet (1825) – four violins and pairs of violas and cellos – is an extraordinary work for a composer of any age let alone a 16-year-old in its originality of conception and melodic invention. The eight (unnamed, and non-conducted) young musicians from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra obviously love this piece but this wasn’t enough, unfortunately, to save a performance that was strong on warmth but weak in tension.
The second-movement Andante worked well, the musicians imbuing it with lyrical and tender playing, but it was the outer movements that were problematic. Mendelssohn’s instructions that dynamics must be “…more strongly emphasised than is usual in pieces of this character” were not heeded here. Tempos were generally on the swift side but the lack of loud and soft contrasts and accentuation produced sound that was too smooth, verging on the bland. The skittishly mercurial scherzo was rather too measured. Some untidiness robbed this delightful movement of the sense of mischief and playfulness this music requires. At least the transition from scherzo to finale was performed without a break, thankfully robbing many in the audience the opportunity to applaud.
Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto (1923-5) fared better. Written as a tribute to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg on his 50th-birthday, the work is an intimate portrait of friendship, highly complex in its conception but classical in its shape. The titles of the three movements as sketched (‘Friendship’, ‘Love’ and ‘World’) are hardly likely to have escaped Barenboim’s attention in the context of the bringing together of these musicians from across the political divide.
And it was the rapport between relatives of the two founders of the orchestra (Barenboim’s son Michael and a distant family member of the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said) that added an extra degree of poignancy. Michael’s playing, in particular was tenderly realised in the second-movement Adagio, written in memory of Schoenberg’s first wife Mathilde, who died during the work’s composition. However, it was Barenboim senior who brought the cohesion and rhythmic urgency that the Mendelssohn had lacked. Perhaps Berg’s romanticism was overly emphasised at times at the expense of ‘edge’ but Barenboim drew out some highly characterful playing in a performance that was never less than compelling.