Unity over division, peace over war, a higher cause for humanity: no symphony better expresses the mission of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra than Beethoven’s Ninth, and no orchestra plays this symphony with greater emotional power. With Daniel Barenboim on the rostrum, this symphony’s composed, collective redemption becomes at once entirely natural and entirely miraculous. Barenboim knows it, and plays on it: the emergence of the finale’s “Ode to Joy” theme with this orchestra barely breathes into life, inaudibly quiet at first and jubilantly celebrated later on.
Yet as Barenboim has said repeatedly, WEDO is not an orchestra for peace but an orchestra against ignorance, an orchestra that teaches what might be possible. WEDO’s playing shows that music-making cannot exist in a bubble. If it is not to be political – an idea that musicians, critics, and politicians have been arguing about for two centuries – it must, and Beethoven in particular must, be human and humane.
This complete Beethoven cycle has amply demonstrated that, but my reviews, of which this is the fourth and final, have dwelled at length on the narrowly technical problems that WEDO have had. This Ninth was no exception. Often there were several different tempi going on in the orchestra at once, particularly in the scherzo, and intonation, rhythmic precision, and blend of sound all suffered. Perhaps that is a result of this project’s realities. (Barenboim shuns the word “project”: for him, WEDO is a “way of life”.) For whatever reasons, whether players could not leave their countries or simply because they were ill, this was a younger and clearly less polished orchestra than in earlier incarnations. It is remarkable enough that there remain a handful of Syrians in it, and even two Iranians.
But this is not Barenboim’s other orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and one cannot expect that type of quality. In truth, it should not matter, if musical vision remains and is unobscured in performance. When orchestra and conductor alike are firing in Beethoven’s Ninth – for Barenboim is hardly infallible – there is nothing in the concert world that is comparable. As I wrote in my review of the first concert, these players do not play notes, but flesh. They are to be experienced live, for their playing is physical as much as aural, leaning into music stands together, communicating with ears and eyes, laughing and frowning at improvisations and mistakes alike. In Beethoven in particular an edge to playing and demeanour personifies the music’s struggles and victories. In this Ninth as in the Fifth earlier in the week, WEDO found their unity and beauty at the most important of moments.
It began as quietly as it could, exploding into the opening movement’s plummeting first theme and continuing with an ominous tread. (Here it was clear that although Wilhelm Furtwängler has influenced Barenboim, so has the very different Beethoven of Otto Klemperer.) Flawless, flexible pacing built inexorably through the development, driving towards the terrifying timpani-dominated moment of recapitulation with fearful but insistent knowledge of its imminent arrival. The coda’s slippery attempt at escape, starting as gentle as the slow movement’s hymns, was viciously overwhelmed.
The scherzo was rhythmically alert despite its sloppiness, mechanistic in design but human in execution. Here individual players stood out, particular in very fine bassoon and horn work. While the trio seemed to pre-echo the finale, the scherzo returned heavier, yet more urgent, the sure playing second time around lending a more merciless air of denial.
With Barenboim it is always the slow movement that roots the finale’s achievements. Here, as ever, it was exhaled in huge breaths, taken dangerously slowly, as if he was daring his players on. (Why, after all, should dreams be sacrificed at risk of mistakes?) Finally they found warmth of tone, winds overlapping as if this were Mozart, strings playing as if this were one of the late quartets. Song after song emerged, its interrupting brass calls calling the way forward with renewed confidence.
After this, the finale only has to translate into words, and the introduction did just that, the cellos aping the voice as themes returned only to be dismissed. Exultant energy went into the tutti sketching of the Ode’s theme before René Pape’s declamatory intervention. The soloists (Pape, Diana Damrau, Kate Lindsey, and Piotr Beczala) and the Westminster Symphonic Choir excelled from then on, but this was Barenboim and WEDO’s show, tearing through the fugue and double fugue with unerring tempo fluctuations over a euphoric general pace. These players embody this music and Barenboim knows like no other conductor how to coax it to its conclusion. The fearless drive through the coda released all the tension and strain of this complete cycle, an epigram to what the West-Eastern Divan stands for.
The Second prefaced this Ninth. Suffice to say it was a poised, snappy performance which found the players in their chamber-orchestra mode. I doubt anyone will remember it, though. The Ninth was a fitting capstone to what has been a variable but fundamentally inspiring cycle. And if inspiration is not the point of Beethoven, I don’t know what is.