Any time Daniel Barenboim performs with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is an event; this evening’s concert, presented in tribute to Jacqueline du Pré on the 30th anniversary of her death, was certainly a special occasion for those both onstage and off. At 74, Barenboim remains as indefatigable as he did thirty years ago, leading the orchestra in a demanding double bill of Strauss and Tchaikovsky.

Kian Soltani, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra © Mark Allan | Royal Festival Hall
Kian Soltani, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Royal Festival Hall

At 25, Jacqueline du Pré had already made her now-legendary recordings of the Elgar, Haydn, Boccherini, and Schumann concertos. Born five years after her death, Kian Soltani represents a very different generation of cellist, although he shares du Pré’s instinctive musicality. Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote is a cello concerto all but in name, assigning the role of the titular knight to the cello and his hapless sidekick Sancho Panza to the solo viola. Soltani’s sweetly lyrical sound was at its best in the finale, spinning those seemingly endless Straussian phrases with finesse and silvery tone. Elsewhere, he tended to be overpowered by the orchestra, with Barenboim pushing the brass to their extremes and encouraging the winds to play with surprisingly bright, often harsh tone.

The unexpected star of the performance, however, was violist Miriam Manasherov, playing with a stunningly project golden sound. More importantly, she fully captured the earthy wit and sarcasm of Sancho Panza, often eliciting a chuckle from the audience simply through playing with her sound and timing in response to the rest of the orchestra. The other solos, including violin and tenor tuba, were played with virtuosity if not much poetry; the same could be said for Barenboim’s surprisingly uninvolved conducting. Though thrillingly fast tempi were adopted when necessary and transitions between variations were fluid, the performance missed the colour and variety needed to fully convey the humour and pathos of Cervantes’ legendary knight.

Happily, this was largely rectified in their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Performed attacca, this was ironically the more obviously narrative performance of the evening. The entire symphony was carefully paced, with the first two movements taken slower than usual and building up to a frenzied finale. This also found the orchestra in much more comfortable form, with their rich sound and heavy brass far more suited to Tchaikovsky than Strauss. This was immediately apparent from the opening, with appropriately dark clarinets and hushed lower strings. Throughout the movement, Barenboim was careful to control the dynamics, with some shocking subito piano moments that drew the audience in most effectively.

The second movement was perhaps the most unconventional reading of all the movements; marked Andante cantabile, Barenboim instead chose a daringly slow tempo that pushed the the first horn player to the very edge (but luckily not over) his limits. The successive wind solos were similarly hushed, slowly building up to the epic climax of the movement which was overwhelming in both its sheer sound and the obvious investment of everyone onstage. The graceful waltz of the third movement was also paced wonderfully, with the capricious string runs integrated seamlessly into the melody. This led immediately into the finale, taken at a ferocious pace and presenting the brass section at their blistering best. For the coda, Barenboim turned up the intensity and speed yet further, with the entire orchestra playing with a commitment, intensity, and exhilaration that surely would have made du Pré proud.