Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
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
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 accomplishment.
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 manner (Philips).
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, and journalist.
Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky Symphony 5