BBC Proms reviews

Prom 48 & 49: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Barenboim @ Royal Albert Hall, London

21 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

A decade after it was founded to bring together musicians from both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra rounded off a 2009 summer tour with a visit to the Proms, the first two concerts of which were presented back to back on this warm Friday evening.

The first concert featured three works connected with Weimar, the city where the orchestra first came together. The curtain raiser, Liszt’s Les preludes, is not a piece for which I’d previously held much enthusiasm, but the orchestra under conductor Daniel Barenboim managed to steer a course which brought out the work’s colour and energy whilst avoiding bombast, with stirring results.

Barenboim is a hugely experienced Wagnerian conductor and it was not surprising that his shaping of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde featured both spontaneity and mastery of the long line. Although the woodwind were unduly tentative on occasion, the strings delivered an enormous depth and reach, most moving at the climax of the Liebestod.

This was followed, however, by a surprisingly unsympathetic and unengaging account of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Despite the continued eloquence of the playing, especially the strings, Barenboim seemed unable to identify with the dreaminess, passion or wildness of Berlioz’s amazing score. After some incredibly loud offstage bells, even the final movement, Dream of a Sabbath Night, failed to take off.

It’s a measure of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Orchestra’s appeal that the Late Night Prom which followed was so heavily subscribed despite a finish time pushing midnight. Mendelssohn’s Octet isn’t ideally heard in a space as large as the Royal Albert Hall, but this didn’t stop eight string players from the orchestra delivering a buoyant and deeply felt account.

To conclude the evening, Daniel Barenboim directed pianist Karim Said, violinist Michael Barenboim (son of the conductor) and a group of 13 brass and woodwind players in Berg’s Chamber Concerto. Although repeat in the finale was omitted, this was a convincing and expressive account of one of Berg’s most complex works.

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