West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Mozart (attrib.)
Sinfonia concertante in E flat for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and orchestra, K297b
Symphony No.1 in D

Mohamed Saleh (oboe), Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Mor Biron (bassoon) & Sharon Polyak (horn)

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 14 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was a time when the music mattered not all that much – at least not for the audience. As Daniel Barenboim said in his impromptu speech at the official end to the concert, these are musicians that are performing under considerable personal risk. Barenboim and Palestinian writer and critic, the late Edward Said, established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999. The agenda was to allow young musicians from the Middle Eastern countries “to combine musical study with dialogue and reflection on the Israeli-Palestinian situation”. With ‘the situation’ in the Middle-East now a part of our everyday lives it is sobering to think that such a group exists to at least discuss the problems without expecting there to be a quick-fire solution.

The Sinfonia concertante, discovered in 1890, is only attributed to Mozart. The manuscript is in the hand of a copyist and does not mention Mozart, although he was known to have written a concertante work for four wind instruments. The fact that the original was for flute, oboe, bassoon and horn appears to have done nothing to distract the true believers. Lindsay Kemp’s programme note was placatory in suggesting that there is enough of a whiff of Mozart to suggest that he made a contribution; I myself am not so sure.

Of the three movements, the second is by far the most convincing and it was the best performed by the four soloists who are all principals in the orchestra. Oboist Mohamed Saleh is a particularly gifted player but the other three soloists lacked presence and, in particular, the tone of clarinettist Kinan Azmeh was abrasive both here and as principal clarinet in the Mahler. Barenboim’s tempo for Mozart’s first movement was leisurely and contributed to a stodgy performance.

A cough-laden audience marred the quiet tones of the opening of Mahler’s ‘Titan’ symphony. Perhaps the now-familiar reminder to turn off mobile phones (though one or two people still forget) should also include requests not to cough and make noise. Barenboim, conducting (as throughout the concert) from memory, certainly has a very clear idea of how Mahler’s youthful symphony should be played, although I am not sure that it is the same as Mahler’s! In the first movement, over-indulgent rubato meant that he often struggled to bring the orchestra back to what was a already a very leisurely tempo.

The second movement Ländler fared better – with a vibrant string sound especially. Liberties were taken with the Trio, Barenboim interpreting ‘gemächlich’ as meaning ‘not in strict tempo’. The third, opening with the strained sound of high double bass, became ragged as Barenboim, at times, chose not to conduct. The fourth started with a bang and a flurry and continued much the same to the end, apart from the slow interlude that seemed to lose its way a little.

The advertised programme had seemed a little short, but Barenboim’s speech and the encores were factored into proceedings, if denied to listeners to Radio 3 and viewers to BBC2!

The first ‘extra’ was an extremely poor performance of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The tempo was too fast, the strings at the start too loud, and tone was not sustained for more than a bar at a time. ‘Nimrod’ simply can’t be dashed off as it was here.

After Barenboim’s speech, the orchestra played its best performance of the evening, nothing less than the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’, the bookends of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” – and the music really meant something to these musicians. Barenboim commented that it was surprising that Wagner, the anti-Semite, was a composer to be embraced by this orchestra; perhaps the musicians realise that the music of Wagner is separate from Wagner the man.

With the removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip making the news at present, all sides need to make sacrifices. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays a part in this dialogue; Barenboim said that the musicians often do not agree with colleagues’ points of view, but the important thing to understand is that there is another point of view. The simple fact that the orchestra is touring and making music together is a testament to this.

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