Daniel Barenboim can be a frustrating – and frustrated – conductor. When his grand plans don’t quite come off, he can become irritable, his gestures more didactic and his brow ever more distractedly mopped. Not so in this concert, however. By the closing cadences of Beethoven's Fifth he was singing along, preempting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s deliciously delayed and eternally held final chord with an explosive “Baaah!” from the podium.

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo © Steve J. Sherman
Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo
© Steve J. Sherman

Barenboim was happy, for this was as auspicious a beginning to a Beethoven cycle as one could imagine. It was the first of four concerts, another traversal in a series that has already produced a recording and outstanding evenings at the 2012 BBC Proms. Whether one considers it idiosyncratic, a blast from the past, or the visionary, humane, and connected Beethoven demanded by our times, only with Barenboim does this music sound this way. The old style has fractured since he learned from Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer, whether as part of a general move away from romanticism and heroism, or because of the fashion for “historically-informed” performance. Only Barenboim can conduct like this now, and only he could get away with it.

It was hard to hear, in this concert at least, what anyone considered so wrong with this approach in the first place. These three symphonies – the First, Eighth, and Fifth – were highlights of the Proms cycle (reviews here, here and here), but each was better played and more convincingly conducted this time around. Partly that was to do with acoustics, but WEDO has become a more flexible orchestra, particularly in the suppleness of their tone, their eagerness for counterpoint, and their ability to match the arc of a tone to phrase and emotion. The technical quality of playing was not always what it might have been – this is the youngest of WEDO’s variants I have seen – but one could easily have been watching an enlarged chamber orchestra. No wonder, tutored as these players are in Barenboim’s philosophy that listening breeds understanding, a philosophy of music intrinsically related to the wider world. Listen better; live better.

The First was a triumphant celebration of Haydn’s influence on Beethoven, and a knowing raspberry at it. Vivacity and flexibility in the opening movement were always reined in at the demands of a structure delineated with admirable clarity. The Andante cantabile floated with Mozartean grace, even at a steady tempo, whilst paying attention to the relationship between individual orchestral parts. The minuet spiked with the vehemence of an eager pretender. Yet a lighter humour seemed ensconced in the very string tone of the finale, Barenboim and his orchestra almost daring it not to finish in C major.

With the massive opening statement of the Eighth, one realised just how far Beethoven moved in the twelve years that separated it from the First. Suddenly much more seemed at stake: Beethoven could by now say more with greater economy. Here Barenboim juxtaposed the simplicity of Beethoven’s root material and the shocking elaborations he puts it through, launching into the opening movement’s development section with staggering intensity. The structure was dynamic, individual notes sending the music off course, but there was nothing extraneous to it, nothing imposed. Balletic grace characterised the Scherzando, crudely and at times brutally interrupted. Perhaps the Minuet was a little heavy, but through counterpoint and demeanour Barenboim looked forward to Mahler's Ländler. Synthesising the previous three movements, the finale whizzed along with irrepressible energy, precisely as fast as it needed to be, serenely recalling lost dances but fiercely prefiguring the Große Fuge in its intensity and the Ninth in its rhetoric.

The Proms Fifth, I wrote several months ago, deserved to linger in the memory for a long, long time, but this one was of far greater stature. Again Barenboim’s Furtwänglerian heritage was displayed in tempo shifts, but even more so in Barenboim’s ability to make this piece seem less a symphony and more a transforming tone poem. A great Fifth has to catch fire immediately, in the vibrations of the strings’ bodies, and so did this, the vastness of collective sound dispelling any worries that tempo relationships might be too extreme. Barenboim alone is able to take such liberties with this music, his way with Wagnerian transitions synthesizing diversity and his long-distance hearing moulding everything over a basic pulse, whether in the pleading second subject, or the blistering fires of the coda. As at the Proms, the slow movement seemed the heart of the piece, the redeeming centre, its plainness of delivery and gentle beauty matching Barenboim’s effortless ebb and flow. The Scherzo looked forward to the Ninth with the fugal passion of its trio, WEDO playing with subtle light and shade, arguing among themselves in declamatory rhetoric. The triumphs of the finale were already assured, yet there was struggle to be had still. The payoff by the coda, “Baaah!” and all, was all the more powerful for that.

This was a Fifth that worked in intangibles, in atmosphere. The Divan’s players lived its terrors, its developments, and ultimately its victories. “Nicht Noten,” Carlos Kleiber urges in a rehearsal video, “Fleisch.” Not notes, flesh. How these players now understand, and how deservedly Barenboim was pleased.