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30 Jul 2012

Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Daniel Barenboim, BBC Prom 18

Few composers seem as remote and yet as necessary to our age as Beethoven, and perhaps the symphonic Beethoven in particular. Irony is a foreign word to him; blazing affirmation and indeed intensity of struggle seem too much for us.

Ludwig van Beethoven : Symphony no 9 in D minor, op 125

Anna Samuil (soprano); Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano); Michael König (tenor); René Pape (bass); National Youth Choir of Great Britain (chorus master: Robert Isaacs); West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

28th July 2012, Royal Albert Hall, London.


Most conductors seem either fearful or simply uncomprehending of his demands, of the powerful, indeed overwhelming moral import of Beethoven’s work. Divested of meaning, reduced to the level of a performance kit - follow a metronome marking, make the strings sound unpleasant, drive as mercilessly as you can - that nonsense, which, if not initiated by Toscanini’s cretinous remark on the Eroica (‘Some people say it is Napoleon, some Mussolini, some Hitler, but for me it is Allegro con brio’), is certainly symbolised by the at best disingenuous claim to play ‘as it is written’, seems to have reached its ultimate conclusion in absurdity. If only it were merely absurd; in reality, it is pernicious beyond words, for no age, least of all our own, can afford to cut itself off from Beethoven’s message, irrespective of whether ‘mere’ words can ever come close to expressing that message.

We take refuge, of course, in the great performances of the past: above all, Klemperer and Furtwängler, extraordinarily different though they may be. Yet, whilst it would be madness ever to forsake the recordings - or still, in the enviable case of some people, actual memories - of those conductors, it is an intolerably unhealthy situation when so many of us find ourselves fleeing from the Beethovenian unity of the concert hall for solitary reassurance, or at best communion with souls of the dead, proffered by the gramophone. Words such as these from Furtwängler in 1943, and behind him Wagner, would be more likely to elicit incomprehension than impassioned debate:


". refinement, or even only what one might call heightened sensuous culture, is lacking in Beethoven. He has enough natural sensuousness, but an elevated, masculine form, Self-indulgence is as far from his nature as feminine loss of control. What Wagner felt edified by and enthusiastic about in Beethoven was the massive ‘grip’, that directness and grandiose clarity of expression unsurpassed in the whole of music, that ‘oratio directa’, as Wagner calls it ..."

The Ninth is perhaps the sternest task of all, at least for those few conductors today who might be willing to take on the full interpretative moral burden entailed. It would be difficult to come up with a keeper of the flame - perhaps Sir Colin Davis, not least in the light of last year’s astounding Proms Missa Solemnis - as likely to rise to the occasion as Daniel Barenboim. Moreover, Barenboim had a number of trump cards up his preparatory sleeve. First, the very nature, the very existence, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, its underlying philosophy almost an instantiation of the hopes expressed for the brotherhood of man by Schiller and Beethoven. Second, placing the performance at the conclusion of a cycle of all Beethoven’s symphonies, each instalment urging on conductor, players, and audience to greater heights. Third, the example of earlier performances, though not this, in performing Beethoven’s symphonies in conjunction with works by Boulez. In Hans Sachs’s words, ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu.’

Beethoven is rarely if ever writing in similar fashion to Boulez; that is not the point of the comparison. Nor is it enough simply to say that both musicians as revolutionaries, though they certainly are. But hearing the very idifferent responses to material necessitated not only by serial method but also by the æsthetic and, yes, moral dictates of another time helps bring home to us both the singularity and the universality - somehow, miraculously, Beethoven’s music can still speak to us, just as Marx expressed wonder in the case of the art of ancient Greece - of Beethoven and of his symphonies in particular. Perhaps it was a pity that the opportunity was not taken to pair another Boulez work with the culmination of the Beethoven cycle. Imagine, in the Royal Albert Hall, a performance of Répons, or, failing that, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. Or perhaps even a new work, whether by Boulez, or by someone else, Walther von Stolzing’s hour finally striking? One will always, however, be able to come up with alleged ‘improvements’ and ‘enhancements’, and up to this concert, all but Beckmesser would have been immeasurably grateful for what they had experienced. How, then, would the grand finale measure up to such formidable or even impossible expectations?

There was a bemusing false start, in which applause greeted - well, no one. Second time around Barenboim appeared, to initiate a performance with anything but a false start. Time was when one could speak quite freely of the opening of the Ninth Symphony as a representation - almost in Schopenhauer’s sense - of creatio ex nihilo; that time came again, displacing or rather rendering supremely irrelevant even the slightest thought of positivist pedantry. There would be throughout the first movement an elemental quality that would be difficult not to relate to Wagner, far more so, for me, than to Bruckner, despite the obvious temptation. Though that primæval stirring owed a great deal to Furtwängler, a Klemperer-like stentorian quality soon revealed itself as a dialectical counterpart in Barenboim’s reading. (A greater debt to, or better, a greater sense of commonality with, Klemperer has been one of the especially intriguing aspects of this series.)

Another dialectic, for Beethoven is surely the dialectical composer par excellence, perhaps in a sense related though not identical, would be that between a motivic integrity and network cohesion that was surprisingly Wagnerian with the tectonic workings of harmony and its demands upon sonata form, Haydn remaining a powerful presence, however different the scale of expression. The sense of exposition in the first movement was very strong; ‘exposition’ was not a mere word, nor an all-too-ready formula. This, despite Wagnerian intimations and Mozartian echoes - Don Giovanni, in particular - was emphatically symphony rather than aspirant music-drama. The coda tested that rule - and how! Its bass line was spine-chilling, terrifying, its contagion spreading to the entire orchestra. Would humanity overcome (apparent) Fate?

The scherzo’s kinetic energy came from within, from deep understanding of harmonic rhythm, not as sadly so often is the case, as an exhibitionistic importation from without. There was some wonderfully rollicking brass playing in a movement that exhibited more gruff Beethovenian humour than might have been expected. The whole was relentless in the proper sense, harmony dictating that it should be so. Once again Barenboim’s handling of transition, in this case to the trio, was of an order rarely encountered today. Wagner once called the art of transition his most subtle art; one might well have said the same of Barenboim. In the trio itself, the world of The Magic Flute seemed to fuse with Pastoral reminiscences, to create something quite new, an early pre-sentiment of the emergence of that tune in the finale. The last recurrence of the scherzo material was all the more powerful for its lack of hysteria: Klemperer again?

Tempo and formal understanding were finely judged in the slow movement. Barenboim’s command of line permitted an almost Gluckian noble simplicity, which yet dialectically revealed itself to be complexity. If the unfolding variations lacked quite the heightened luminosity and sublimity of Furtwängler, then Barenboim is not alone in that; indeed, it is Furtwängler who stands alone. Perhaps wisely, this at least opened in more modest fashion, yet remained beautifully sung, suffused with longing - and sheer goodness. More than once I felt kinship with the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony: a little surprisingly, since I am not aware that this is a symphony Barenboim has conducted. (I shall be happy to stand corrected though.) Nevertheless the cumulative effect of experiencing Beethoven as supreme master of variation form was powerfully felt. Even when I wondered whether the first brass intervention towards the end might have been given a little more time, it was the second time around, the latter thereby intensified.

The celebrated cries at the opening of the finale were taken at quite a speed, without sounding hurried or harried. There was real depth of tone to be heard from the cellos and basses in their responses. The first enunciation of the theme was miraculously hushed: quite extraordinary. A sense of communion was engendered, as the players’ orchestral brothers - and sisters - joined; the brass entry sent shivers down the spine and had tears welling up, though we still lacked the word, perhaps even the Word. There were a couple of points when the music threatened to run away with itself, but it just about held together, and all was put right by René Pape’s Sarastro-like entry. His diction was straightforwardly superlative. more to the point, not only could every word be heard; every word meant something, and something important at that. The choral declaration, ‘Alle Menschen warden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt,’ was for this listener at least, emotionally overwhelming.

Words, music, and performance came together as so much more than the sum of their parts. For the performance given by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain was as fresh as it was weighty, its layout - vocal parts dotted throughout the choir rather than split into sections - heightening the sense of mankind’s variety. I was again quite taken aback by the high quality of the diction, not an easy matter in which to succeed in this choral writing. ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott!’ was enunciated more clearly than I can ever recall, and that in an acoustic that really cannot help. Barenboim held the final ‘Gott!’ for an ecstatically long time, or so at least it felt. Anna Samuil’s rendition of the soprano part was somewhat problematical, not only lacking blend but at times quite unpleasant of tone; Waltraud Meier did a perfectly good job, as one would expect, but one does not listen to the Ninth for the mezzo, even for that mezzo.

I thought Peter Seiffert was on much better vocal form than I had heard him for some time, before realising that he had been replaced by Michael König. The ‘Turkish March’ sounded just right in terms of tempi, contrast, and balance. Thereafter, the return of ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ genuinely lifted the spirits; I could not help myself smiling, nor did I wish to do so, infected with ‘Freude’. The questioning, ‘Ihr stürzt nieder Millionen?’ was splendidly mysterious, imparting a sense of gradual revelation quite in keeping both with Schiller and Beethoven. The great combination of the ‘Freude’ and ‘Seid umschlungen’ themes was taken at an exhilarating tempo, full of life, and still full of expectation, full indeed of joy. Structural underpinning continued, however, to have a great deal in common with Klemperer’s granitic example. The final accelerandi were of course Furtwängler’s province, if less extreme. The very particular circumstances that enabled Furtwängler’s response no longer pertain; this was a Ninth that honoured tradition but spoke of our present condition, and to an audience of the present day.

It was a genuinely lovely touch at the end of the symphony for Barenboim to shake the hand of every member of the orchestra; it also reminded us that the West-Eastern Divan is so much more than just an orchestra. A speech was expected and came: succinct, resolute, even Beethovenian in spirit. Though a forthcoming concert in East Jerusalem had had to be cancelled, some elements in the Occupied Territories having objected to the orchestra as a role of ‘normalisation’ - how wrong could they be?! - the work of listening to each other, the democracy of a musical society in which every member was an equal, would continue. They might not be able to change the governments of the Middle East, but those governments would never change them.

Mark Berry

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