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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9, WAB 109
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Triple Concerto, Op.56
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (piano)
rec. Philharmonie Berlin, 2019
UNITEL 803608 DVD [112 mins]

I may find myself rather too frequently cursing the whims of a producer when viewing a video recording of an opera or ballet, but there is no denying the fact that such a presentation if well managed should greatly enhance the enjoyment of a musical performance. The merits of a video recording of a live concert are however less immediately apparent when compared to an audio disc; balances, constrained by camera positions, may be less carefully managed, and the choice of an unfortunate camera angle may disclose disconcerting strain on the part of a performer (or even more unfortunately draw the attention of the ear away from the principal strand of the music to a subsidiary line that the producer has chosen to highlight). The vanity of conductors may lead them to wish to enshrine their contributions to a performance in visual terms, but otherwise the principal justification for the commercial release of such video material should really be confined to very special occasions.

And such a very special occasion would certainly appear to be the twentieth anniversary concert of the East-West Divan Orchestra given in Berlin in 2019 just before the onset of the global pandemic put an end to all concert-giving and live concert-going for such an extended period. The importance of the anniversary is of course as much political as it is cultural; the visionary aspect of the foundation of the orchestra itself as a symbol of peace across a war-torn Middle East remains as much a cause for rejoicing as it was two decades ago, even if the hopes that it then generated stay so tantalisingly out of reach. The booklet notes with this video understandably and correctly concentrate on the underlying ideals of the orchestra itself, but the choice of the two works included in this concert are in themselves not without significance.

Performances of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto have often been scheduled as ‘spectaculars’ to unite the talents of three major international soloists, although the sometimes less than spectacular nature of the composer’s part-writing has also attracted the attention of established piano trios. It remains the case that melodic material eminently suitable for one soloist can prove to be less tractable when assigned to another, and not all Beethoven’s skill can persuade us otherwise unless the soloists themselves are skilled at covering up the problems with which they are occasionally confronted. Here, with probably one of the most stellar casts ever assembled for this work, Anne-Sofie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim himself directing the orchestra from the piano, we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appreciate not only the quality of the music itself but also the sheer difficulty of binding a performance into a unit. The players lean towards each other in a unity that provides a solid bedrock to the whole, and nobody puts a foot wrong. The result is enthralling even when the sound produced by the recording engineers is not ideally defined and the string soloists are sometimes slightly short-changed by the microphones. One would be grateful for this recording on CD as well as purely for its visual elements.

But what makes this video so particularly valuable is the performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony which follows the interval. Barenboim has a long history of Bruckner conducting, including two complete cycles of the symphonies; but the unfinished Ninth somehow seems in a way to symbolise the unfinished political business of the orchestra itself. The resonances are wide-ranging, from the almost brutal dance rhythms of the scherzo (no hint of bouncing peasantry here) to the extreme dynamics and earth-shattering climaxes of the final Adagio, delivered with such force that it is hard to imagine any finale which would not seem anticlimactic after such as a cataclysm. The orchestra play, of course, on modern instruments; but one thing that strikes me is the sense of nineteenth century orchestral balance that they achieve. The Wagner tubas, sometimes bullish in the wrong hands, are handled by their hornist players with aplomb. And the modern trumpets, which can sound shrill and piercing by comparison with lower-pitched instruments of Bruckner’s day which he clearly saw as part of his heavy brass armament, have a sense of grandeur and nobility that provides an ideal blend. The thin-toned leading oboe, too, has a distinctly Viennese flavour as opposed to a more modern and lyrical French style. It all lends the performance a richness and warmth that modern would-be authenticists, eschewing vibrato and insisting on period instruments, strive in vain to achieve.

Bruckner himself hardly assists performers with his tempo indications in the score; the first movement is littered with instructions to go slower which, if literally obeyed, would bring the music grinding to stasis well before the conclusion. Conductors either attempt to circumvent these problems by starting at too fast a pace for the indication Feierlich, or by inserting unmarked and unwanted accelerandi during crescendo passages which can produce an uneasy sense of an aeroplane propeller slowly stirring into action. Barenboim carefully adjusts his speeds (the winsome dance in the trio of the scherzo is superbly judged) in a manner that is almost Imperceptible but never sounds rushed or impulsive, allowing Bruckner’s many repeated ostinato to build up a momentum of their own without having any sense of artificiality. He also encourages the occasional use of portamento (as at the opening of the Adagio) with an authentic sense of style that does not sound imposed from without. This is a very great interpretation, and the orchestral performance is of a piece with the conductor’s conception.

The audience at the end are struck into total silence after Barenboim lowers his baton, for what seems like ages: no truck here with the premature shouter who seems to make his presence felt in every audience in the world. And then as a body they rise to their feet to deliver a standing ovation. Viewers will be struck with the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in their midst; when was the last time we saw another head of state attending a concert of anything other than popular miscellanies or gala occasions? And then the cameras disclose an even more extraordinary event; some members of the orchestra themselves are visibly weeping. Now I am not saying that all orchestral players are heartless (many of them evidently are not) but they do tend to cultivate a hard-bitten exterior, especially outside the concert hall, except when exercised by a personal enthusiasm. For members of an orchestra to be so openly emotional is indeed a very rare exception; they, as well as ourselves, know that they have been part of a truly extraordinary experience. Barenboim himself recognises the exceptional moment. He first stands back from the applause, joining in himself from the sidelines, for what seems like an age; and then he abandons the conductor’s podium to mingle with his players, speaking to them on an individual basis and clearly comforting the weeping second oboist. It is this very special kind of relationship between the conductor and the orchestra that makes this concert such a unique document.

There are no extras with this video – it needs none – but the performance of the Bruckner is such that it really should be in everyone’s collection. The picture quality is superb.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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