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Prom 10: Beethoven and Boulez (2): WEDO and Barenboim do the Eroica

22 July 2012

The following is offered with the explicit caveat that, due to another engagement, I wasn’t in the hall. These notes might therefore be considered less apposite than reviews directly from the RAH. Seeing as I’ll be at all the other concerts it seems a pity to waste the lavish technology at the hands of wannabe Prommers. The iPlayer recording, from which this review has been constructed, can be found here for another six days. (If you want to discuss whether this is a reasonable thing to do, go ahead: there are proper reviews from Boulezian here, Classical Iconoclast here, and Andrew Clements here.)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op.60
Boulez: Dialogue de l’ombre double
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major ‘Eroica’, Op.55

Jussef Eisa (clarinet)
Gilbert Nouno, Jérémie Henrot (IRCAM engineers)

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

BBC Prom 10, via iPlayer

After Beethoven’s first symphonies – reviewed here – the gap to the next two is massive. A simple comparison of the far more intense, searching, and troubled slow introduction to the Fourth with the Second is enough to show that. And with Beethoven’s onward progress comes Barenboim’s shift to even more Wagnerian conducting, in orchestra size as well as temperament.

The Fourth opened with real foreboding in its unison B flat, the harmonic instability that followed indicative of a composer and an orchestra dealing with the legacy of the Eroica (which was, as in the next two concerts, given after its even-numbered pair). Barenboim’s Wagnerian tempo fluctuations were nigh-on imperceptible yet telling, the influence of Klemperer exerting only a slight pull on his Furtwänglerian heart. Whilst listeners used to postmodern Beethoven might have thought this slow, Barenboim maintained a tectonic drive which kept things moving, especially into the development and then with a snapping accelerando into the recapitulation. The troubles hinted at in the opening movement’s introduction never really dissipate in this symphony, even though Beethoven seems eager to set them aside. Demons were immediately present again as the Adagio‘s theme wandered relaxedly, and they continually reasserted themselves to no avail. The Scherzo was rightly more intense and less flippant than the Second’s, its rambunctious outer sections neatly contrasted with two trios; they were meltingly played by WEDO’s excellent wind section and taken just a charming nip slower than expected. With the finale, its detailing again superb, there was a truly Beethovenian delight in defiance. Charm, and perhaps charisma, won through, even if the battle was more peripheral than in other of Beethoven’s symphonies.

The victories of the Eroica are another matter entirely. Beethoven’s meditation on heroism (political, personal, compositional) often seems to me the least comfortable for some of our time’s conductors. What, after all, is a hero any more? Perhaps Barenboim himself is one, perhaps not. Beethoven certainly was, and in the Eroica and the Fifth we have two of the greatest musical portrayals of heroism available, depicting the hero-cult of post-revolutionary Europe whilst heroic in their absolute forms themselves. Through television and especially the internet, the revolutionary dream of speaking not just to immediate listeners in the concert hall but to the world at large with a composer’s music is fulfilled.

This performance, though, seemed a little too hit and miss to set the world alight in liberty and fraternity – even, more specifically, the Middle East. The first movement opened very quietly, perhaps a little too restrained and lacking in tension (which may not have been the case in the hall). If this was rather modest heroism, though, the dialectic between struggle and success was strongly felt, and if Barenboim seemed in one of his more irritable moods such capable outlining of structural development cannot but have impressed. With this orchestra in the funeral march second movement it is hard not to think of the broader political issues which so few writers seem ready to consider in relationship to this cycle. Funereal and with some stunningly plaintive oboe and flute work, it was certainly not played with the almost glib lilt one so often hears. Here Barenboim fully entered the land of late Wagner: at times Götterdämmerung seemed a page-turn away, at others the tempo contrasts were a little too stretched. From there, although there was still a glorious attention paid to thematic detail and the shaping of phrasing, things came across on television at least as a little flat. Structure seemed in the finale a little too all-encompassing, and playing standards dropped a notch. Still there was enough there to suggest that heroes might not be impossible after all.

The Boulez suffered massively on television from losing its spatial dimension: without hearing that it seems wrong to comment. Yet Jussef Eisa’s virtuosity with a purpose was undoubted even in widescreen, and he managed to get Boulez’s structure and sensuous lyricism across with seeming ease. If more people come as a result of these concerts to see Boulez in more rounded terms, that will be one of Barenboim’s finest achievements. Eisa, like all of WEDO’s principal wind players, seems an extraordinary young talent.

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