Two down, two to go. Whereas at the 2012 BBC Proms Daniel Barenboim and the West-Easter Divan Orchestra paired the Pastoral symphony with the Fifth, just as Beethoven programmed them in the infamously long concert that premièred them both, here the Pastoral prefaced the Seventh.

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

During this cycle, Barenboim has tried to show how Beethoven’s symphonies form wholes, their themes and interests continuing throughout sections rather than being constrained in mutually exclusive movements. This is easiest in the two middle symphonies, with the Fifth unified by its motto’s transformations, and with the Sixth shaped by its programme of moods and a journey of transfiguration. In the Proms Pastoral, which I reviewed here, Barenboim brought this religious angle to the fore, giving the music the inevitability and redemptive edge of the final act of Parsifal. This time around the symphony was hobbled with technical difficulties, just as the Fourth and Eroica had been two nights earlier, but there was a power of vision to Barenboim’s direction that kept a greater focus.

That vision was one of almost radical self-control, and it did not become clear until the climaxes of the final movement that there was a broader thread at all. Patience was required, then, as if this were Bruckner, and at times Barenboim’s restraint leaned too far into languidity in the first movement, and even dullness in the second. This Pastoral began gently, exhaling in relaxation, even though Barenboim’s talent for long-distance hearing (what Wilhelm Furtwängler called Fernhören) made it seem as if the fourth movement’s storms were already on the horizon, dimly perceived through the mists. WEDO’s players, who were on the form of their second concert rather than their incendiary first, provided beautiful phrasing that remained fuzzy in diction and lacked enough precision to be called warm. The same impression was generated by the second movement, bubbling along nicely on muted strings but generally sounding timid. Wind soloists were excellent, particularly in the avian chirps of the final bars, but when playing as a group their sound did not quite blend.

The “Merry Gathering of Country Folk” was much pointier, and was attacked with rustic emphasis. Patience was still required, though, the purifying thunderstorm still moving gradually into view. When it finally hit, that thunderstorm initially seemed tame, but it was quickly apparent immediate gratification was not the aim: Barenboim built it steadily, at quick tempo but under a broad arc. And with a gorgeously sung line in the first violins, the preparation was complete for the “Happy and Thankful Feelings” of the final movement, though even here we had to wait for complete transformation and for WEDO to find a full tone. It might have been that it simply took three quarters of an hour for conductor and orchestra alike to warm up, but if so they caught fire just in time to be given the benefit of the doubt.

The Seventh was instantly more energetic, WEDO projecting their sound outward into the hall and and Barenboim shaping the introduction as one long paragraph. As in the first concert, Barenboim’s way with transitions hit home in the first movement, extracting surprise from the pivot point into the Vivace proper, pausing before the development as if deciding whether or not to observe the repeat. Again one might have hoped for greater rhythmic clarity in the strings and winds, but they found moments of shocking power for the development's turns to the minor, and they relished attacking the return of the opening material and the explosive coda.

Then for Barenboim’s trump card: emphasizing the unity of all four movements by playing them without a break. Here there was perhaps a bar’s pause between the triumphant A major conclusion of the first movement and the inverted A minor of the Allegretto. The chamber-like quality of earlier performances returned now, counterpoint merging and dividing as if primal liquids were coming together. There was an imperious vision and depth here, though one longed for greater power and rhythmic bounce (which Barenboim tried and largely failed to extract), but again there was a wholeness to the conducting, with the final wind chord emphasised to show its kinship with the first. The infectious scherzo – taken attacca – gradually found the precision required for its piano/forte contrasts. Barenboim had to work hard for that, but the two (nearly three!) trios felt more naturally grand. The finale was blistering, seeming constantly on edge as the strings spat out their semiquaver turns (far from in unison). Barenboim’s tempo fluctuations were pronounced, even at a higher pace than he might usually take, and somehow he conjured the sense that the music was always trying to catch up with something just in front of it, barely out of touching distance. This was a Seventh greater than the sum of its parts.