The BBC Proms’ countdown to the Olympics is nearing its climax. The cycle of the Beethoven symphonies by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has reached its midpoint on the way to Symphony No.9, timed so that the humanitarian hymn of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” rings out as the opening ceremony is unfolding at the Olympic stadium.
The idea was a good one. Not only does Barenboim’s orchestra of young players drawn from across the Middle Eastern divide underline the political theme of peace and harmony, but on an artistic level the performances are also putting forward a potent, unified message.
It is remarkable that an orchestra which only comes together for a month or two each year can play with such a strong corporate feel for sound and style. Barenboim’s Beethoven has not changed from the days of conductors such as Furtwängler and Klemperer in his youth and the West-Eastern Divan players replicate their depth of sound in all its fullness. In the Symphony No.6, Pastoral, that meant a glowing sunshine warmth, enhanced by fine wind solos by the brook. The “merry gathering of country people” was a pretty slothful get-together here, but there was compensation in the way the emotions flowed freely in the finale. At times Wagner and even Bruckner seemed to beckon.
Each programme in the cycle has contrasting works by Boulez at the centre. On Monday, these were two that the West-Eastern Divan players have performed before – Mémoriale, in which Guy Eshed’s plangent solo flute dominated a small, rather anaemic-sounding chamber group in this vast hall, and the agitated Messagesquisse, in which Hassan Moataz El Molla’s solo cello performed feats of nimble virtuosity.
Then back to Beethoven. A portentous delivery of the opening “fate” motif immediately announced a performance on a grandiose scale. Where period instrument performers tend to drive through the symphony with unrelenting intensity, Barenboim is a master at knowing where to slacken the pace, where to build up the power, and his young musicians never wavered from the path he set. Again there were good solo contributions, not least the piccolo who stood for her final minutes of glory – an extraordinary moment in the spotlight. Perhaps Barenboim has other surprises in store before this cycle is out.