In recent years, Daniel Barenboim seems to have become as much a fixture of the BBC Proms as the Last Night, visiting either with his Berlin Staatskapelle or, as here, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the project he founded in 1999 with the Palestinian academic Edward Said to forge a cultural bridge between the peoples of the Middle East and between them and the West. For this, WEDO’s 18th appearance at the Proms since its debut in 2003, Barenboim conducted a largely Russian programme, but with at its heart a contrasting reflection on the troubled region from which many of its players come, in a new work by the British composer, and conducting assistant to Barenboim at the Berlin Staatsoper, David Robert Coleman.

Elsa Dreising sings <i>Looking for Palestine</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Elsa Dreising sings Looking for Palestine
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In effect an operatic scena, or monodrama, Looking for Palestine sets texts from a play, Palestine, by Najla Said (daughter of the orchestra’s co-founder), and without taking a political line explores the issues of identity and exile in today’s world from the perspective of an Anglican American-Arab, “bridging the gap between two worlds that don’t understand each other”. This text, though pithy and evocative in itself, with scenes set in war-torn Lebanon and in New York, proved in its execution to be the least successful aspect of the piece in this London première. Without recourse to the printed libretto in the programme, it would have been impossible to make out more than the odd word from the lips of soprano Elsa Dreisig, a combination, one feels, of Coleman’s not always helpful vocal writing, her own accented projection of the English words and the cruel RAH acoustic (listening back on the iPlayer helped only to a certain extent).

Coleman’s orchestral sound world, however, was fascinating and engaging throughout, alluding to Arab music in his use of an obbligato role for an oud, the Middle-Eastern lute, and by tuning a pair of harps a quarter-tone apart to suggest Arabic temperament. But the music provided more than mere local colour, in its sinuous harmonies and melodies providing the poignancy and emotional journey lacking from the vocal side.

Lisa Batiashvili and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Lisa Batiashvili and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The music of Tchaikovsky filled the Prom’s first half: an indulgent but richly hued account of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin and the Violin Concerto with Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili as soloist. The disappointment of a relatively late-in-the-day change of concerto from the Brahms was banished by this performance of the Tchaikovsky. A work that can easily trigger the hackneyed warhorse alert, given its ubiquity in concert programmes, here emerged newly minted and sounding deeper and broader in emotional scope than it often can. This impression came not just from Batiashvili’s committed playing – she moved around so much in her shaping of the music that she was in danger of creating her own Doppler Effect – but also in the detailed and complementary rubato that Barenboim and his orchestra brought to their part of the performance.

Daniel Barenboim © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Barenboim
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Subtlety was also the key to Barenboim’s way with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy that followed the Coleman. This was a slow-burn affair, not so much lush as louche, and lingering on the work’s languor perhaps at the expense of its rhythmic drive, yet the C major climax, when it arrived, nonetheless brought the release that had previously been so pent up. Individual playing from the esteemed members of WEDO was exemplary, from priapic trumpets to seductive strings, from titillating percussion to the sensuous touch of solo woodwind. A richly upholstered encore of Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations brought its own emotional release.

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