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July 24, 2012

Prom 12: Barenboim, Beethoven, Boulez

By Spear's

The spirit of this terribly British festival is unique and wonderful

Ah the Proms… at last! The spirit of this terribly British festival is unique and wonderful; the orderly queuing of Promenaders round Prince Consort Road, the sensible pricing of champagne and the presence of the BBC Outside Broadcast trucks beside the Royal Albert Hall fill me pride and excitement. I remember as a student at the Royal College of Music queuing up at 4pm to see concert after concert and if you went off to buy a sandwich, your place would be kept for you. How civilized.

Another great tradition at the Proms is Beethoven, where up until 1942 the complete symphony cycle was performed each season. In September 1939, however, Sir Henry Wood announced the hasty end to the season and imminent evacuation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from London.

Within such historic surroundings, who better than Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra to take up the mantle of the Beethoven series? I was reminded by the informative programme notes that the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth was adapted as a wartime V for Victory signal (in Morse code, V is three dots and a dash – da-da-da-DAH…). Now isn’t that fascinating?

So here is Barenboim, a great achiever, receiving a thunderous applause, an applause which reflects not only his talent and career but his realisation of a tremendous dream together with Edward Said to create an orchestra comprised of musicians from Israel, Palestine and various Arab countries to promote a dialogue. This is surely the only logical future.

He started with Symphony Number 6, the Pastoral, Beethoven’s sublime depiction of the countryside. Having just returned from singing the Countess in the Marriage of Figaro at the Loughcrew Festival in Ireland, I had been battling with muddy fields, under-heated stately homes and spiders in my bedroom. Beethoven’s idyll is far more appealing: the motif of cuckoos, babbling brooks and even a quail (marked in the score).

I felt somehow that the orchestra was a little quiet, which is a shame in such a majestic venue, but perhaps my ears were blocked from the flight. Even the tumultuous thunderstorm enhanced by no less than eight double basses standing ceremoniously in their own raised section seemed muted.  This was confusing as Barenboim is quite strident and bold in his conducting then sometimes he does next to nothing.

This was followed by two short Boulez pieces, Mémoriale and Messagesquisse, a clever piece of programming and an opportunity to hear stunning virtuosic soloists from his orchestra: the Israeli flautist Guy Eshed and the Egyptian cellist Hassan Moataz El Molla, who both have extraordinary careers.

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Things were more passionate with Beethoven’s Fifth, a piece so famous the pressure is always on for a conductor to produce something magical. And magic was indeed achieved: rousing, full-blooded romanticism with exciting tempi and vitality. A wonderful crescendo swept through the Royal Albert Hall and Barenboim received a well-deserved long, standing ovation.

Watch Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral

Watch more clips from Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the BBC Proms


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