Slowly and tentatively Berlin’s music venues are returning, if not to anything like business as usual, then at least to presenting performances in front of a public. Yet there was nothing slow or tentative about the programme Daniel Barenboim chose to present with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at this concert: four works, ranging from 5 to 20 minutes in length, by four of the composers most closely associated with the conductor.

Daniel Barenboim
© Peter Adamik

It was the first live music to take place in front of an audience (albeit it a tiny one) in the Pierre Boulez Saal since March 11. The sense of the event’s urgency and, indeed, necessity was only heightened by its dedication to the people of Lebanon and the victims of the explosions in Beirut ten days ago. As such, it was a concert that was difficult to view objectively – and why should one want to?

The programme and its running order proved inspired, its four constituent parts themselves coming together, whether by accident or design, to resemble a symphony that strode back and forth through time but retained a unity, a coherent sense of what had come before or what stood ahead. 

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1 was the urgent opener. Boulez’ delicate, airy Mémoriale followed, suddenly in the context taking on the character of a Scherzo – traces of Mendelssohnian light refracted through the spectrum of a century and half.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll became a slow movement, its lyricism providing welcome balm ahead of the fury of Beethoven’s Große Fuge, given with pole-axing force by the WEDO’s massed strings – some 40 players squeezed into the hall’s arena, surely pushing at the boundary of what’s permissible in these socially-distanced times.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
© Peter Adamik

The Schoenberg burst into existence as if desperate to get out, its opening salvos as arresting as I’ve ever heard them. Barenboim pushed his players hard in the faster passages, the string filigree wound up with great tension, the winds coming together in forceful chorus or in their superbly characterised solo lines.

It almost came as a relief after so much intensity to reach the work’s calm central section, heralded by that remarkable, spectral return of the open fourths rising up on string harmonics. They ushered in moments of remarkable tenderness and lyrical generosity before Barenboim drove things forward once more headlong towards the triumphant conclusion.

For the Boulez, flautist Tomer Amrani stepped into the limelight, playing with the utmost feathery delicacy against muted buzzing of the strings and distant-sounding, barely recognisable horns. It’s a beautiful work, at once intangible and speaking directly, and this was a performance of surprising affection, enabled by a remarkable level of security and freedom in the execution.

That Barenboim would bring affection to the Wagner too was no surprise, and the playing here was also superb, the stage now swelling with the full complement of strings, the performers switching direction as is usual post-interval practice in this venue (although of course there was no interval here). It was a generous, loving performance, filled with moments of intense beauty and spun out with Barenboim’s characteristically flexible sense of line.

But it was the concluding Beethoven that was most memorable. Fierceness, determination and passion burst out as one, amplified by the fact that all energy and emotion was packed here into just four lines. There was playfulness and delicacy, too, but this sense of unflinching united will is what mattered most. A stunning conclusion to a remarkable concert.