Throughout the year the music of Ludwig van Beethoven has poured in from all conceivable channels, whether radio stations focusing on classical music, or live (and more and more often streamed) concerts by orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists making sure that they all paid tribute to the Master. It was thus not surprising that on 17th December, his 250th birthday, a major concert would celebrate his life and work in Bonn, his home town.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Unfortunately, the glorious birthday bash – due to the wise restrictions of the German authorities – had to be reduced in size and pomp, and its revised setup felt impersonal and un-enticing. Cold and dark colours prevailed everywhere in the Theater Bonn, where the stage floor was black, the walls were covered in black and turquoise shades, and garlands of white and blue lights were hanging from the ceiling and on the walls. Instead of stupendous bouquets of flowers on the sides of the stage, lending some warmth to the colours, BTHVN 2020 banners were hanging sideways; instead of an excited audience dressed in their best, camera drones were zooming back and forth in the auditorium. Silence followed the conductor entering and leaving the stage. String players wore masks, the woodwind and brass players sat well distanced from each other.

They were members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble consisting of musicians from various Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The name of the orchestra is a reference to a collection of poems by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. According to the founder of the orchestra (and soloist and conductor of the concert), Daniel Barenboim, the Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance and one of its goals is to create a platform where the two political sides can disagree and not resort to knives. A highly laudable endeavour, indeed.

Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

After a video message from the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the concert began with the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor. Barenboim filled both the part of soloist and conductor. His authority over the keyboard was impressive. His fingers moved with elastic confidence, defying the age of a musician who has already lived twenty years longer than Beethoven. He trusted his orchestra to follow him during the solo sections, only occasionally giving instructions with his eyes and the odd hand movement. The young musicians around him watched every one of his gestures and accompanied him with mostly solid ensemble playing.  

The first movement began with correct but somewhat tentative playing, that showed in the more than usual fluctuations of tempo as the movement progressed. The soloist’s great musicianship was noticeable throughout, particularly in the impeccably shaped cadenza at the end of the movement. The magic, however, started to happen from the beginning of the second movement. Barenboim introduced the Largo theme with the tranquil wisdom of an old man, taking infinite time when needed for the phrasing, to give a personal account of how he heard and experienced Beethoven’s music. The last movement’s character was not as rambunctious as one can often hear it, notwithstanding the theme’s capricious off-beat accents.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

After a brief pre-recorded interview with Barenboim in lieu of an interval, he walked back to the quiet hall to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The first movement began somewhat portentously, making it hard to be taken as hammer blows of Fate. In fact, energised, vigorous tempos were seldom to be heard throughout the symphony. The orchestral playing was satisfactory with good intonation and ensemble, and would surely offer a unique experience to someone lucky enough to be exposed for the first time to this most popular and wonderful symphony of Beethoven. While a solid performance, the sound of the orchestra, the manner of the interpretation and the phrasing of the musical shapes often reminded me of recordings from a couple of generations ago. There were splendid recordings made at the time, indeed, but the continuation of that performing style in our times is not without inherent risks, as it might feel old-fashioned, unless the combination of conducting and playing wins the listener over with irrepressible charisma, sadly lacking in this performance.

In this legendary symphony, the audience knows all the melodies even before they are sounded. If the performance follows a stable and predictable path and its emotional arc is uneventful, as it was on this occasion, it might leave some of the listeners feeling neutral rather than elated, a less than optimal finish for the birthday concert.

This performance was reviewed from the WDR live video stream