Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [44.59]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino: Overture (1869) [8:02]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kuolema: Valse triste, Op. 44 (1903) [5:15]
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. in concert, Victoria Hall, Geneva, August 2004
Bonus DVD: Tchaikovsky & Verdi performances, Documentary
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 621905 [58:35]
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, brings together young-adult
musicians from Israel and from Arab countries. It was the product
of a collaboration between Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma, and the
(now late) Professor Edward Said of Columbia University. The
intent was not directly to facilitate the ever-stalling Middle
East peace process, but to use the shared artistic experience
to foster cooperation and dispel ignorance. Thus, at some of
the string desks, you'd find an Arab and an Israeli player working
towards common artistic ends. To dispel ignorance of "the other"
- not just between Arabs and Jews, as Barenboim points out in
the booklet, but among various internal subgroups - is a worthy
goal; should you wish to support the endeavor, you get a nice
two-disc set for your money.
It's difficult to think of another conductor who could have
brought the needed commitment and personal charisma to his task.
To fashion miscellaneous players into an ensemble is already
hard enough without factoring in ethnic and political complications.
In these enthusiastic concert performances, Barenboim elicits
a level of polish from his young group comparable to that of
a good standing orchestra. Strings are vibrant and unified,
while reeds and brass are suave. One wonders whether better-quality
wind and percussion instruments were brought in, since I doubt
Middle Eastern musicians have consistent access to good ones.
In any event, the players themselves needn't be ashamed of their
Measuring the performances against the existing discography,
the picture becomes cloudy. Tchaikovsky's relatively extroverted
Fifth Symphony plays to Barenboim's strengths - just as the
Pathétique plays to his worst, most exhibitionistic
instincts. It’s an engaging performance. He draws nice
contrasts among the first movement's three theme-groups, not
dragging the third as was once customary. I also liked his no-nonsense
Finale; the motto theme's triumphant recap at 9:18 steps
smartly, as does the 6/4 coda, the latter in the Markevitch
Unfortunately, Barenboim, who began as a pianistic prodigy,
made the transition to the podium without having acquired a
stick technique commensurate with his perceptions or his ambitions.
As the smudged opening attack suggests, his signals can still
fall short in matters of basic clarity. Once past that start,
the players settle in for a while, with the string swells generating
a brooding intensity. That said, the little running figures
sound nervous after 3:12, as they do almost any time there are
moving secondary parts. It is as if Barenboim were primarily
conducting the tunes and ignoring the counterpoint. He has a
nice feel for the Andante's expressive contours, but
ensemble at 2:57, among other spots, is as approximate as in
his Chicago account (Warner). The latter two, more straightforward,
movements suffer less. The first time around in the Finale's
coda, the lagging trumpet comes unstuck from everyone else,
but this sounds like the player missed a spur-of-the-moment
tempo choice - the others, after all, are together - rather
than the result of a confusing beat.
The Forza overture is nicely dramatic, with Barenboim
giving the broad lyrical themes plenty of room to expand and
"sing". Coordination again becomes touch-and-go in the counterpoint
at about 4:40. No such problems mar the Sibelius, correctly
sombre, but maintaining the underlying waltz-like lilt.
The recorded sound conveys Tchaikovsky's massed tuttis
and the brasses in the Verdi with a particularly impressive
depth. The thickish orchestral sonority is, I suspect, what
was actually heard in the hall, rather than an engineering flaw.
Applause has been edited out. The second disc, a DVD, offers
the same performances of Tchaikovsky and Verdi; a thirty-three
minute documentary, "Lessons in Harmony"; and a conversation
between Barenboim and Said.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,
Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky