Classical and Opera Reviews

Prom 39: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim @ Royal Albert Hall, London

14 August 2008


Following a packed concert with a programme of Haydn and Brahms, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (or at least a select band of them) stayed on at the Royal Albert Hall for a late night presentation of two twentieth century compositions.

At a recent personal appearance to talk about his new string quartet Tree of Strings, Harrison Birtwistle was asked why he had given the work that name. “It’s like children,” he replied bluntly, “you have to call them something.” Pierre Boulez’ Mémoriale (‘ explosante-fixe’ Originel) picked up its bendy-bus title (and punctuation) in the course of metamorphosing, like so many of his works, through several versions over a long period of gestation. Far less arbitrary than Birtwistle’s nomenclature suggests, the name of Boulez’ work is itself worthy of structural study. Barenboim and his group of nine soloists, led by Guy Eshed in the burbly solo flute role, showed with this six minute elegy that it’s often the little works that can cope best with the hall’s grim acoustic.

If the Boulez was a nouvelle cuisine hors d’oeuvre, the meat came with Stravinsky’s charming piece of folk-theatre Histoire du soldat. A director of distinction (who with Boulez and their centennial Ring changed Wagner production forever), Patrice Chéreau stomped his way through all three parts narrator, soldier, devil adding very little to one’s appreciation of the work. It may be intended as a performance piece, with dance as well as speech enhancing the action, but stripped to the bare bones of text and music, it might have worked better as a suite without words. This would have allowed Barenboim and his soloists (now just seven players) to fit in another musical work.

The music was a delight, played with bounce and enthusiasm, the all-important violin solo by Guy Braunstein, but it did feel as though it were filling in between Chéreau’s lengthy, if speedy, narration and undefined characterisations, rather than the other way round.

Until the middle-east sorts itself out, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will always be a good story, and a most heartening one, and I hope they’ll always be regular visitors to these shores. On this occasion, having missed their concert earlier in the evening, I’d like to have heard more of them.



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