Saturday, 21 July 2012

Barenboim Beethoven 1 & 2 Boulez Prom 9

(for my review of the second Prom Boulez Dialogues de l'ombre double Jusef Eisa see here). Never has one man conducted an entire Beethoven series at the BBC Proms, but that says as much about the industry as it does about Daniel Barenboim, whose traverse of the complete Beethoven series began tonight  with the First and Second Symphonies. Barenboim is a good conductor, and we'll be well served. But part of the significance is that Barenboim is conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he and Edward Said created to briung together young musicans from all sides of the Middle East. Youth orchestras often feature at the Proms, but the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is unique. It's a statement of faith in music, and in its potential to affect hearts and minds.

Far too often performances are judged by impossible standards, but perfection in the real world is exception rather than rule.  Beckmesser in his rush to prove himself, missed what Hans Sachs. understood : that any performance is part of a continuum, where we all, performers and listeners, continue to develop and discover new things. Performance isn't an end but a process. Hearing the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made me feel just how much we owe Said and Barenboim. Some members of this orchestra go on to great things, but each one has already been on a journey simply by having taken part.  In the early years, the orchestra had to operate from Spain and Germany. Players weren't completely safe, and faced endless hurdles.  If anything the world since then has become even more politically polarized, but still the orchestra survives as a symbol of hope. We need hope in these times, when the world economy is falling apart and extremism runs rife.

So I listened to Barenboim's Beethoven Symphony no 1, and thought of hope. Beethoven was young, but confident. This symphony is like a calling card with which the composer announces his arrival.. Haydn and Mozart are in the background, but Beethoven's embarking on something new and original. Symphonies will never be quite the same. The verve which these musicians threw into their playing was life affirming. No matter what might happen in the future, for this moment they were filled with creative energy. Even though they're not a permanent orchestra, they are technically very strong. What gives them the edge over most of their peers is the sheer committment they put into what they do. Barenboim's more than a conductor, he's an inspirational leader.

It's significant that Barennboim followed Beethoven with Boulez. Boulez gets a lousy deal from the media because he doesn't play safe or conform. Dérive 2 is a gloriously piece, sparkling with life and invention, growing organically from itself  so much so that Boulez kept finding new things in it.  To dismiss it because it's modern is irrelevant. Audiences have always been shaken by the new. Even Beethoven. This performance wasn't as scintillating as it might have been with Ensemble Intercontemporain but that's irrelevant too. For me, it was uplifting to see these players engaging with the piece. These players have generally had more mainstream interests, but Barenboim is nudging them in the direction of the future, and their own futures. 

A well paced Beethoven Second followed. Watch Barenboim smile on the TV broadcast. He's proud of his people. Wait til they move onto the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th. Incidentally, be cautious about the interval programme. Parts of it are interesting like the historic footage of young Boulez cheerfully conducting at the Roundhouse 50 years ago, surrounded by men in fashions they'd rather forget they fancied then. Their grandchildren will cackle. But the curse of inanity strikes as usual. "Is it true that Boulez heckled Stravinsky?" asks the presenter, quite reasonably. But no response. William Glock wrote about the Boulez/Stravinsky relationship. Stravinsky was exploring serial rows, and Boulez knew Stravinsky's music well. When they finally met, they sat together, rapt with attention. Boulez might have made a greater mark in America, but there were many who didn't want that to happen for reasons of their own.  Hence the unfair reputation, which keeps being repeated. What we think we know is shaped by who shapes the media, and English language media dominates. But that's another story. Read Paul Griffiths on 20th century music, not Alex Ross and lesser sources.

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