“Let me play the lion too.” I hadn’t associated Daniel Barenboim with Nick Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream before, but during Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, with the maestro urgently directing his beloved West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the piano, he gazed towards his fellow soloists with such wonderment that I half expected him to leap from his stool and play the violin and cello parts too. Wonderment is the right word. It’s not just that Barenboim, at 72, is indefatigable, but that there is a sense of exploration in his music-making – and a delight in the music-making of his colleagues.

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

Barenboim’s Divan Orchestra Proms are always events, drawing huge crowds. I haven’t always been won over. Their Beethoven symphony cycle was stodgy and Furtwängler-ish, to my taste, so I approached this concert with a certain amount of caution. That caution was blown away with a scintillating account of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1. The 15 players were wrapped around Barenboim in two semi-circles: strings in front, woodwind and horns around the outside. Barenboim balanced Schoenberg’s knotted, gnarly textures so beautifully that every instrument’s line was audible. Such is the perverse nature of the Albert Hall’s acoustic that chamber music can often carry better than a full symphony orchestra and so it did here. Barenboim conducted largely from his shoulders, energetic shrugs with the occasional accusing finger jabbed at his young charges. Horns snarled, pizzicatos fizzed as Schoenberg’s dense, compressed writing unfolded.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto was affectionate from first to last. Barenboim was in no rush and the strings of the Divan Orchestra, from a foundation of four double basses, made a solid, firm sound. With piano skewed so he could keep his eye on soloists Guy Braunstein and Kian Soltani, Barenboim craned his neck, twisted around and leapt from his stool to direct proceedings: a rear view mirror would have come in handy. While his playing was a little smudged, an air of good-natured amiability emanated from his pianism. Braunstein, a bear of a man, conjured the sweetest, nuttiest sound from his 1679 Ruggieri violin, while Soltani caressed the central Largo with lyrical tenderness.

Guy Braunstein, Daniel Barenboim and Kian Soltani © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Guy Braunstein, Daniel Barenboim and Kian Soltani
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

By rights, I shouldn’t have enjoyed the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor half as much as I did. There’s much to take issue with in Barenboim’s manipulation of the score – exaggerated pianissimos and elongated pauses, plus a tendency to accompany every decrescendo with a rallentando – and yet he does it all with such utter conviction that you find yourself completely taken in. The second movement Andantino was satisfyingly brisk, woodwind ripples tossed back and forth airily. Pizzicato strings impressed in the Scherzo, Barenboim leaning back on the rail, appreciating their virtuosity. And then there was the finale, during which my attention was grabbed by a single player to the extent that I’ve simply no idea how the rest of the orchestral playing went.

Many conductors elide the Scherzo straight into the fourth movement, the last will-o-the-wisp pluck battered by the orchestral explosion that follows. Leading that battery is the percussion department and our cymbals player cued himself so early in the Scherzo that an attaca finale was inevitable. Not so. Barenboim paused to gather his forces. All the while, said cymbal player stayed crouched, poised, ready to strike; a veritable panther of the percussion. And strike he did, with full cymbal smash in the grandest theatrical style. It was a joy to behold. We had the full gamut of cymbal technique, along with a few I’d not witnessed before, including “smash your cymbals whilst lifting one knee for dramatic effect”. There was even a determined twitching of cuffs and tugging of sleeves before raising arms for the next percussion assault. The audience loved it and so did he, as the symphony scrambled to its rousing close.

Barenboim and Edward Said co-founded the Divan from Isreali, Palestinian and Arab musicians to promote intercultural dialogue. The percussionist in the Tchaikovsky epitomised the spirit of this remarkable orchestra in a visceral way, a performance now imprinted on my mind’s eye to be replayed each time I hear that finale again. The BBC was filming this Prom. I hope to heaven the director spotted this vivid cameo.

Encores followed, including a Valse triste with rich string playing which topped anything heard in the Sibelius marathon during the previous three evenings, and a Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture that was all the better for not being garbled at breakneck speed. A memorable evening.