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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 41: Mozart, Sinfonia concertante K297b and Mahler, Symphony No.1 in D major, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2005 (MB)



Daniel Barenboim apparently dislikes this orchestra being called a ‘youth orchestra’; he is right. It’s one of the most mature bodies of players around and this concert did indeed touch on the kind of inspiration and maturity that marked out his Edward Said Memorial Concert last year at the Barbican Centre, one of my concerts of 2004.  And yet, despite some wonderfully pure Mozart and a Mahler First which touched the edges of genuine terror, one had to wait until the second encore to hear this orchestra and conductor at its considerable best.


If the second encore surprised many in the audience it did not this reviewer (there had been mutterings something special was going to be played, something Wagnerian). Barenboim had spoken to the audience about how each and every player had to have courage to sit on the platform and play music, and as if to illustrate this programme booklets still refrain from naming players for ‘security reasons’. The orchestra travels on diplomatic passports issued by the Spanish Government. But the confrontation of a Arab-Israeli orchestra playing Wagner draws the kind of parallels for tolerance that is inspiring and has much wider lessons to be learnt outside of music, still, as Barenboim admits, the only entity which unites these players.  The ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ to Tristan und Isolde lived up to its musical expectations in every way, but nothing quite prepared one for the searing eroticism of the Liebestod itself. It was quite overwhelming. The first encore, ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, was just rarefied simplicity.


But it was the Mozart and Mahler which made up this concert and they too spoke of something special. Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn is not echt Mozart, but get to the central movement, an inspired, lyrical and tender adagio and it sounds so Mozartian as to be the real thing. The four soloists made a wonderful sound against a backdrop of refined string tone; only the slightest individual coloration of wind phrasing was lacking.


Mahler’s First is a challenge for any orchestra (and I have still to hear a better played performance than the one which Riccardo Chailly gave with the London Symphony Orchestra over five years ago); not that the virtuosity and passion of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was in short supply either throughout this performance. Barenboim’s last Mahler First at the Proms (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2001) revealed a slightly less dry approach to this composer than is Barenboim’s norm, and there was little interpretatively to separate the two performances. The first movement’s contrasts between its sometimes hushed beauties and at other times uneasy chilliness was well drawn, but Barenboim is a conductor who sacrifices the poetic for the sheerly brilliant. Nor was there a particular emphasis on drawing out dynamics as sharply as some achieve: ppp from the horns often sounded more like p, and the harp was indifferently phrased. Yet, on the upside, the woodwind playing, if not entirely accurate, was marked by an unambivalent landscape of sonority. The coda, a little restrained perhaps, promised much for the final movement.


Barenboim does not labour over the fantasy of the second movement and there was a peasant-like flavour to the merrymaking. Yet, how warmly he shaped the Trio, surprisingly Viennese in its sound, with portamento restrained enough to make it feel genuine. The third movement was not as Jewish as some might have predicted, and it grew on one all the more because of that.


As so often with Mahler Firsts it is the final movement which defines a performance. Barenboim’s approach is akin to Bernstein’s and both bring a uniquely driven excitement to this extraordinary music. The opening had true terror to it, the playing not less than the ferocious onslaught it should be. One could almost touch the intense glow that smouldered from the strings, the articulation exemplary, as one could with the huge brass declarations which Barenboim summoned from his players. At times Barenboim seemed to take the risk of letting the sheer abandon of youth overcome discipline and control, but it held together in the most thrilling, albeit threadbare, way. A sense of repose returned with the second subject only for the ecstatic coda – with horns standing – to close the symphony in electrifying and singular purpose.



Marc Bridle




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