“Daniel Barenboim can be a frustrating... conductor”, I wrote after the first concert in this series of four, in which he and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are presenting all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies. As if to prove the point, to follow that stunning concert of First, Eighth and Fifth, these forces delivered a maddeningly inconsistent Fourth and a far loftier but hardly flawless Eroica. Whereas technical mishaps could be overlooked in the first concert – indeed in some ways they contributed to Barenboim’s vision of struggle and triumph – in this one they could not.

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the 30 Jan concert; © Steve J. Sherman
Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the 30 Jan concert;
© Steve J. Sherman

The Adagio introduction to the Fourth quivered forebodingly into life, but already there was discomfort, whether because woodwind sound seemed to phase in and out, or due to general tuning issues. Here that special something that no writer can adequately describe – and which had so characterised the Fifth the night before – was plainly absent, and one suddenly agreed with Weber’s complaint that this music moves “at the rate of three or four notes per quarter of an hour”. With one of his typically transformative shifts into the Allegro vivace proper, it seemed as if the rest of the movement might come together more satisfyingly, but now Barenboim alternated between his most inspired and his most didactic styles. There was plenty of mystery in quiet passages, and the recapitulation and coda sparkled with energy, but the basic momentum seemed obscured rather than laid bare by Barenboim’s Furtwänglerian tempo changes.

The slow movement began much more promisingly, the main melody on first violins wrapping itself around similarly enveloping lines elsewhere in the strings as Guy Eshed’s flute work peered through gracefully. Again, though, slight sloppiness in orchestral work brought out Barenboim’s more professorial side, and the result was disjointed rather than visionary. Individual moments, such as a gorgeous handover between flute and clarinet in the final bars, couldn’t rectify that impression. Likewise, a thrilling dialogue between parts in the minuet-cum-scherzo and a Mozartean treatment of the winds in the trio barely overcame a generally leaden quality. The finale was instantly livelier, casting off the muffled orchestral sound from earlier movements and marrying power to delicacy, the brass interjecting sharply. Again, though, errors crept in, particularly as an obviously misread (or misconducted) ritardando into the final pages resulted in the first violins settling on a note seemingly at times of their own choosing. They were roundly told off mid-bar.

From the shockingly abrupt opening chords of the Eroica – torn into by Barenboim and WEDO, just as in the previous night’s Fifth – it was instantly clear that this reading would be much more satisfactory, though not revelatory. Once again Barenboim displayed willingness to let counterpoint do its work, all the while making it subservient to dramatic imperatives. Now the to and fro of slippery tempi made sense, so much so that the development’s dissonant climax did not seem overwrought even with the brakes so strongly applied. Barenboim’s vision was firm and yet the playing of it flexible. Tempi were changeable but notes and harmonies were worked for. Only at a few junctures did it seem that his approach was too interventionist.

The revolutionary (and Revolutionary) funeral march was delivered in an implacable arc, and here more than anywhere one could hear the Wagner in Barenboim’s Beethoven, whether in its ceaseless flow or in its narrative power. Again slips crept in, a completely missed oboe line especially glaring, but under sheer power of insight it just about held together. A true pianissimo was found for the scurries of the scherzo, delivered with poise throughout, and with impressively accurate horn work in the trio.

The finale hung together much better, even if Barenboim’s fluidity veered too much even for my tastes. The strings found an admirably humane cantabile, relishing this theme and variations in sonata form and the expressive potential it yields. There was fugal intensity that looked forward to the Eighth and Ninth, but at other times it was the jauntiness that struck most. A triumphant coda, however, was not enough to make the performance as a whole convincing.