When Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the purpose was to bring together young musicians from Israel and various Arab countries of the Middle East in a peaceful enterprise. The initiative was never intended to engage the political process head on, but merely to show on a small scale what can be achieved by everyday dialogue.
Out of this have come the West-Eastern Divan Soloists, a group of musicians who have played with the orchestra in the past and are now pursuing that dialogue on a smaller scale still. Their two concerts last week – the first at the Philharmonie in Berlin, the second at the Southbank Centre – offered a chamber music programme that put at its heart a work born of political strife.
Before that, though, came rather a jumble of other pieces. An arrangement of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta for chamber ensemble was light and airy, at times almost as delicate as French Impressionism, but a long way from the gypsy fire of Kodály’s Hungary that we usually hear. Saint-Saëns’s buoyant Tarantella Op 6, in the composer’s arrangement for flute, clarinet and piano, was distinguished by some fine wind playing.
From there to Brahms’s Horn Trio, written less than a decade later, is a small step in musical history, but a much bigger one in terms of romantic depth and colour, which the performance never convincingly made. The emotional temperature came and went, dropping so low in parts of the slow movement that the music’s vital signs seemed to be failing. A more consistent depth of tone was needed, and a stronger sense of momentum, or maybe the performers simply need to play together more often.
The single work in the second half – Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps – was more impressive. Composed in the German prisoner of war camp at Görlitz in 1940-41, the quartet is a testament to the power of hope and faith in desperate surroundings. Much of it looks inward, evoking an intense stillness and quiet, and the movements for solo violin, clarinet and cello, which lie at the quartet’s heart, never let the concentration falter. For the West-Eastern Divan Soloists this unique work was an apt, and rewarding, choice.