West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven’s 2nd and 9th Symphonies at Carnegie Hall

I was at Carnegie Hall this afternoon for performances of Beethoven’s 2nd and 9th Symphonies by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.  This was the concluding concert of their series of  all the Beethoven symphonies over the past week, led by their music director and conductor, Daniel Barenboim.  I have not previously heard this orchestra in concert, although I’ve heard some recordings.  The orchestra brings together young Israeli Jewish and Palestinian musicians, who rehearse intensively together each year for a series of concerts in Israel and on tour. 

This orchestra made a big impression on me this afternoon.  The excellence of their performances was stunning.  I have not in the past been a big admirer of Barenboim’s conducting, but on this occasion he had me from the first chord of the 2nd Symphony through the last chord of the 9th Symphony.  He is an interventionist conductor.  That is, he very much personalizes the music by introducing his own ideas about phrasing, tempo modification, dynamics, accents, and so forth.  Of course, Beethoven’s scores leave lots of room for interpretation.  I disagree with some of his interpretive ideas — especially the decision to have the first statement of the Ode to Joy theme played so softly as to sound like a ghostly whisper, which was so dramatic that it called attention to itself and away from the music — but on this occasion I thought most of what he was doing was very effective in communicating the emotional message of the music.

But that orchestra!  Their performance could easily stand up to comparison with the leading professional orchestras in this country.  The excellence of the strings, the wind soloists, the percussion…  It was unfortunate that the Carnegie Hall program book did not include the names of the musicians, but I can understand if the political sensitivities in that part of the world would make it imprudent to publish those names.  Unfortunately, then I can’t congratulate these soloists by name.  But I was particularly impressed by the principal horn player, whose rendition of the solos in the adagio of the 9th Symphony were superb – played with ease, in tune and in time, without a hint of strain, and some of these passages truly strike terror in the heart of professional orchestral musicians. 

Beethoven is a bit unfair to the vocal soloists in this piece, giving only the tenor and bass big solo moments, while the soprano and mezzo sing only duets or as part of quartets.  Rene Pape was magnificent in the recitative and first vocal rendition of the Ode to Joy theme, and Piotr Beczala brought the appropriate zest to the military (“Turkish music”) variation.  Diana Damrau and Kate Lindsey sang their parts well, but it seemed luxury casting when there was little for them to do.  The Westminster Symphonic Choir was beyond criticism.  These folks make a big, beautiful sound, and had the tonal and dynamic extremes of the 9th well in hand.  Their director, Joe Miller, took a deserved bow at the end.

The 2nd Symphony received a large-scale, somewhat old-fashioned performance, despite the slight reduction in the size of the string orchestra compared to the 9th.   I’ve often been struck by what a revolutionary piece this 2nd Symphony is.  When I was a youngster first getting to know the Beethoven symphonies in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that the first two symphonies were not that significant, rarely played on their own outside of performances of the entire cycle (and similarly regarding recordings), with the view that the Eroica marked Beethoven’s revolutionary break with the past.  But I hear so many intimations of the composer’s future direction in the 2nd, and the 2nd strikes me as an enormous advance in sophistication over the 1st Symphony.  I would rate the 2nd as Beethoven’s first mature, fully individual symphony, the first with a true scherzo, the first with a fully-developed song-form slow movement (albeit not all that slow), and presenting incredibly dynamic outer movements going well beyond the scale of the Haydn models from which he was developing.

This was an excellent concert, well worth attending, and I hope this orchestra will be coming back to Carnegie Hall in the future.  Now I have the incentive to search out their recorded Beethoven cycle!

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