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Barenboim for All - the Symphonies
on 13 September 2012
Beethoven's symphonies have been gifted two extraordinary surveys in the past year, both on Decca. Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester took a strict-to-metronome approach, reaping considerable interpretative rewards. Theirs was a fleet and furious cycle, imbued with an untameable joie de vivre. Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra take a more sober approach. Not for them the pursuit of any 'historically informed' touches, making the WEDO sound considerably broader and 'European' here. This has a formidable impact on the scores, albeit with ultimately mixed results.
The funeral march in the 'Eroica', for instance, is pensive, proper and in a completely different conceptual and musical league to Dudamel's recent slack recording with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Barenboim understands where this movement has come from and where it's going. Imbued with the weight of that history, its significance tells immediately. The silences crackle like log-jammed synapses. You eagerly await more.
Such concentration pays further dividends in the battleground of the 5th Symphony, where nothing is taken for granted. The determination in Barenboim's Beethoven comes not from speed (as with Chailly), but from its weight and tenacity. That iron will elicits motivic understanding from the players and consequently a formidable sense of structure. The lower end of the dynamic range has insidious tension, not least in the allegretto of the 7th Symphony, which, rather than providing a means to a fortissimo end, both enhances the finale and its own music.
Not everything is so well served by Barenboim's well-upholstered approach. True, the dissonance at the beginning of the 1st Symphony has a new (or renewed) magnitude, but the 4th symphony is far too grounded and the 'Pastoral' over polite. What offers elastic tension in the finale of the 5th or 7th Symphonies, feels posed in its hymn of thanks. The storm is a gentle rain shower rather than Chailly's hurricane (before he admittedly rushes the rest). Neither can possibly top Kleiber in this.
At first, Barenboim's 9th Symphony appears weighed down by the same pensiveness, not least in the finale. What he uncovers, however, is a richer dichotomy by far. Joyful woodwind cuts through the chorale-like seriousness of the strings, goading them into the 'Ode for Joy'. With superb singing from his soloists and the Vokalensemble Kölner Dom alike - as well as deliciously camp percussion - Barenboim embraces a much wider spectrum than his peers, all the time building through that structure. The final unleashing of Schiller's text is mind-blowing.