Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Prom 34: Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Lutoslawski from Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Prom 34 - West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 34 - West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Schubert Symphony No. 8 'Unfinished', Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra; Martha Argerich, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 August 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra joined with piano legend Martha Argerich for an evening of serious music making

Monday's BBC Prom, 12 August 2019, was one of the hot tickets of the season. A very full Royal Albert Hall witnessed Daniel Barenboim conducting his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a programme of Schubert's Symphony No. 8 'Unfinished', Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, with the distinguished Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich as the soloist.

This year is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's 20th anniversary, the ensemble was founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said and has at its centre the idea of coexistence and intercultural dialogue with the core of the orchestra being formed by young musicians from Israel and Palestine. The orchestra has demonstrated an alternative model to the current situation in the Middle East, showing that while music alone cannot resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, bridges can be built to encourage people to listen to one another.

Schubert's Symphony No. 8 was performed by slightly reduced orchestral forces, with Barenboim using just under 70 players in total. Overall the young players exhibited a remarkable sense of responsiveness and control. Barenboim seemed to have strong ideas about the music, and the orchestra really created his soundworld.

Prom 34 - Martha Argerich, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 34 - Martha Argerich, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
The famous slow introduction of was quiet and intent, arising out of nothing.
This was an indication of Barenboim's intentions, the symphony might be written on the grand scale (the two movements last around 25 minutes) but the material is personal and intimate, and throughout Barenboim's reading was intimate and intent. The fine quality of the wind players was demonstrated in the lovely tone of the wind phrases in the first subject, whilst the second subject flowed beautifully from the strings. We had no exposition repeat.

Throughout, there was a slight feeling of holding back combined a sense of rhythmic vitality, and for all the stabs of real drama much of the development was misterioso. This wasn't a massive reading of the music, but nor was it light. For all the transparency of the orchestral textures and the beauty of the phrasing, there was a seriousness and intent quality to it.

The second movement flowed beautifuly, with some lovely dialogue between the sections of the orchestra and a superbly fine-grained clarinet solo (and a similar oboe solo in the recapitulation). Again there was a feeling of holding back, with just the tutti outbursts creating moments of massiveness, and all ended aetherially.

For some reason, the orchestra was pushed back up-stage so that no risers were used and wind and brass (and some strings) were on the stepped section at the back of the platform. This meant that when the piano was brought on, there was still plenty of space at the front of the stage as if the BBC had been frightened to put Martha Argerich and the orchestra too close to the promenaders.

Amazingly Marta Argerich is 78, but her playing showed little sign of a decline in fire and power. She and Barenboim to quite a particular view of Tchaikovsky's concerto, and one of the beauties of this performance was the way both conductor, soloist and orchestra were unified in their overall concept and in the details. Something that does not always happen!

The opening was notable for the way Argerich's very strong piano chords (she was using the standard 1879 version, probably revised by Alexander Siloti) contrasted with the light orchestral sound. It made a striking opening in a way that many performances do not, and reflected the whole concerto where Argerich's dazzling technique was sometimes subdued towards a greater intimacy. For much of the concerto there was a collaboration between soloist and orchestra, rather than the usual Romantic battle. In the first moment, Argerich brought out moments of intimacy, and the orchestra did have its grandiose moments but never for long.  The long awaited first subject was light and perky, with sparky dialogue between piano and orchestral instruments, and the second subject was really intimate. For all the subdued nature of Argerich's virtuosity, there was still some wonderful bravura moments when the fire really flared.

The second movement brought out the lovely transparency of the orchestal playing, with a fine flute solo, well matched by Argerich's spacious phrasing on the piano. This was a very intent performance, almost chamber in its scale, and then the fast passage-work exploded with a delicate lightness! The finale was wonderfully rhythmic and perky in character, contrasting with the suaveness of the second subject. And towards the end, finally both orchestra and soloist let rip for a terrific ending.

The audience reaction was rapturous, though clearly Martha Argerich felt that she had given enough and when we might have expected an encore (and in fact the BBC's pre-show timings suggested they had made an allowance for that) she led the orchestra off stage!

After the interval the orchestral forces expanded even more, for Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, one of the composer's most popular works and written in the 1950s before his significant change of style, using controlled aleatoric techniques, which developed with Jeux Venetiens (1960-61).

The work opened with tight yet impulsive rhythms, creating the sense that the piece was being propelled forward over the tolling notes in the bass. As really driving rhythms developed, the colours produced by the players became really vivid, but then it all evaporated leaving just individual instruments and the tolling notes, now on celeste. The second movement 'Capriccio, notturno ed arioso' seemed to take Mendelssohn's fairies and put them an a Bartokian night scene, the result was real magic, dazzling yet eerie with pin-sharp passagework, contrasting with the more threatening feel of the trumpet-dominated trio.

The final movement is the longest of the three, 'Passacaglia, toccata e corale'. It opened with the passacaglia, rather eerie at first with contrasts in timbre and texture to the fore, gradually developing into something vibrant and vivid. And then everything evaporated leaving just a high violin line, out of which developed a fast and furious toccata. There was a sense of control of the detail of the performance, with some vivid colours, despite the way the music gets crazy at times. Again Lutoslawski allows the music to evaporate but the final section has all hell break loose. This was serious fun, the young players bringing a sense of vivid detail to Lutoslawski's music.

Again the audience reaction was stupendous, and we were given an encore, a terrific account of Beethoven's Egmont Overture!

The programme is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Elsewhere on this blog
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