Onwards Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra went, then, jumping forwards from a rousing Fifth to the Eighth, once again playing the later, even-numbered half of a ‘pair’ before the odd.

Michael Barenboim plays Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 with live electronics © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Michael Barenboim plays Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 with live electronics
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Asked why the Seventh was much preferred publicly to the Eighth, Beethoven is apocryphally to have replied: “because the Eighth is so much better.” So it seemed here, the symphony opening with force and impetus but even in its early moments displaying the radical concision which characterises the whole. Here more than anywhere else in this cycle I felt that Barenboim succeeded in his avowed project to marry the two conductors who have influenced him most: the sound of this first movement was at once heavily scuplted (like Klemperer), and fluid, fluxing but with a clear goal in mind (like Furtwängler). In this Eighth, though, there was far more that was not derivative of either, especially in terms of the juxtaposition of violence and wit. Both were to be found in the first movement, Barenboim imparting a nice dash of the absurd to some of Beethoven’s changes of mood, especially at the crown of a scarily harried development section. The idea that such large-scale Beethoven must inevitably be delivered with a self-serious scowl was easily dismissed by the playful Allegro scherzando, sweetly floated with swooping but light violins and periodically ridiculed by raspberry-like interjections. The minuet – or at least Beethoven’s late reflection on one – was perhaps a little heavy, lacking the joviality of the other movements but keeping the weighty accents. Yet the finale fizzed away, Barenboim at once regarding its progressions and depth with sincerity, bringing back the violence of the first movement, and subtly suggesting with colour and balance that things need not be taken quite so seriously after all. It’s a difficult idea, that humour and the most profound of questions must reside together and influence one another, but it’s one raised in much of Beethoven’s work, and it was powerfully probed in this great performance of a too-often overlooked work.

The Seventh was more rapturously received, but I didn’t feel it held together quite as well as it might, although it was still an excellent performance by any standard. Here the first movement seemed to sag a little, which was a pity after an introduction full of monumental drive. Still, the Divan proved themselves rhythmically alert, with a world-weary sound full of premonitions of the Allegretto. This – taken attacca – was much more like it, flowing with contrapuntal energy and onward tread. The strings provided ample colour, poignancy even, but once again in this series the quality of woodwind playing surprised: the principal oboist and flautist in particular seem to have an uncommonly strong musical bond, over and above their considerable individual talents. Likewise taken without a coughers’ break to emphasise the rhythmic unity of this work, the Scherzo again showcased supremely balanced woodwinds, the strings and timpani foreshadowing the finale in their snap, even if the Trio seemed to slow just a little too much. The madcap fourth movement flashed by, not quite with the triumphant dance-with-the-devil quality that Carlos Kleiber found at his greatest, but more with a blurry speed that for once felt like Barenboim had taken one risk too many. It was daredevil, certainly, and delivered with infectious energy, but tested the boundary of how far this movement can be pushed before it becomes a showpiece.

The acoustic vagaries of the Royal Albert Hall might well have muddied the effect of the Seventh’s finale for me – Barenboim himself seemed unusually pleased – but Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 might easily have been written for this Victorian cavern. Certainly the spatial awareness of IRCAM engineers Gilbert Nouno and Jérémie Henrot made it seem so, transforming the hall into a giant bathtub for the amplified, distorted, refracted and reflected sounds of Michael Barenboim’s solo violin to reverberate around and through. This was yet another Boulez performance to present rigourous serialist works in a way that emphasised an emotional heart, whether that be the aching loneliness of the thematic shard that unifies this six-part work, the sheer beauty of its surprising arpeggiated triads, or the scraping sounds of its final section (the violence of which toyed with the Beethoven Eighth heard beforehand). As ever with Boulez, traditional forms were melded and subverted, the solo violin – played with outstanding confidence by Barenboim – accompanying itself, being accompanied in concerto-like ways, and so on.

Whatever you think about Barenboim’s Beethoven, with no more Boulez to be heard in this symphony cycle it’s time to recognise that, for those willing to listen, Barenboim’s decision to pair the symphonies with the Frenchman has done the later composer a great service.