BBC Proms 13 and 14: Beethoven, Boulez; Gubaidulina et al

Michael Barenboim, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim; Kronos Quartet

Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2012 4.5 stars3 stars

Daniel BarenboimDaniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s Beethoven Proms marathon, in which the composer’s complete symphonies are being performed across five concerts, culminates on 27 July with the ninth. Preceding that performance have been four concerts pairing two of the symphonies with a piece by Boulez, a composer whose music, like that of Beethoven, has long been a speciality of Barenboim’s.

The coupling of Beethoven and Boulez feels just right in some respects, both men being musical colossi of their respective ages with a passion for musical ‘innovation’ and an unwillingness to compromise. However, the musical procedures and emotional atmospheres of the music heard tonight differ to such a degree that their juxtaposition succeeded through contrast rather than correspondence.

The two Beethoven symphonies, the eighth and the seventh, bookended a brave, if a little brusque, solo performance of Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 from Daniel’s son Michael Barenboim, on violin. In the context of such familiar and warmly-welcomed repertory works as these symphonies, particularly amidst a packed and cavernous Royal Albert Hall, the Boulez felt as strange as it possibly could, slightly hackneyed and rudimentary signal processing and all. Although the piece’s clearly delineated architecture and electronic special effects (managed well by IRCAM’s Gilbert Nouno and Jérémie Henrot) were seemingly not enough to impress some in the audience, many seemed rapt by Barenboim’s virtuousic cadenzas and the hypnotic, spectral, glassy chords heard as a refrain throughout.     

That the symphonies were well-received was not a surprise. And yet, the sheer range of pliable expressivity and depth of command of argument which Barenboim brought to them was sometimes a wonder to behold. Although there were a handful of shaky ensemble moments, with the brass being culpable on more than one occasion, as for example with the sluggish climaxes in the eighth’s finale, or the exposed trumpets in the fanfares at the start of the seventh, more generally the orchestra’s responsiveness to Barenboim’s demand for slow-burning dynamic swells and ripples was striking. Time and again Barenboim effected waves across the ensemble, pulling out a detail here, gradually unfurling a climax there.

The music was consistently guided into fresh new shapes, even in familiar or commonplace contexts, as with the Allegretto of the seventh, or the ‘slow’ movement of the eighth, both of which sparkled and rolled as if fresh. The orchestra’s tone colours were richly velvet throughout, with the placement of the low strings above the rest of the band lending the sound a depth and warmth well suited to these vivid, intense, and surprising scores, even if the overall string sound was sometimes a little muddy.  

The late evening concert featured the Kronos Quartet, who, incredibly, were here making their Proms debut. You would have imagined that the Quartet’s sometimes uncomfortable blend of folk music, minimalism and other contemporary styles should have been grist to the Proms’ middlebrow mill, but somehow they have failed to appear until now.

As it happened, Kronos’ inconsistencies were on stark display in a concert that should have been theirs for the taking. They picked an uninteresting, derivative modernist piece on the one hand, Gubaidulina’s arid String Quartet No. 4, and on the other leaned too heavily on somewhat insubstantial and gimmicky music. The latter was present in the form of a basically bland arrangement of music by the usually electric, grainy and fervent Omar Souleyman; in Nicole Lizée’s occasionally striking but generally unpersuasive tribute to the BBC’s seminal Radiophonic Workshop; and even in Aleksandra Vrebalov’s earnest, robust, richly-dramatic, but sometimes characterless piece which staged the syncretism of Serbian and Albanian cultures, …hold me, neighbour, in this storm….

Though the Quartet’s full bag of tricks was on display, with drums, ethnic instruments, shouts, electronic effects from reel-to-reels, kaoscillators and more featuring, the concert only periodically took off.

The fourth string quartet of Ben Johnston, a composer with whom Kronos have enjoyed a fruitful relationship, came midway through the programme, finally imbuing proceedings with a sense of musical fullness. Idea, execution and expression were here suddenly aligned, the music’s eldritch but effulgent rendering of ‘Amazing Grace’ making the strangest sense, giving us a glimpse into a world subtly beside our own. Although Kronos’ performance could have conveyed the shifting sonic kaleidoscopes of the piece’s three just intonation tuning systems with more clarity, and additionally could have been carried off with a little less slapdash, it nevertheless provided the concert with a richly-heard centre.

Only the short, but gorgeous, Martin Hayes-like arrangement of the Scandinavian song ‘Tusen tankar’ matched the Johnston for vividness of expression. The encore, Clint Mansell’s Death is the Road to Awe from the film The Fountain, was unspeakably bombastic and shallow. Although it works very well as an accompaniment to the film, here it just felt compositionally and dramatically hollow, especially with the horrible intervention of the backing track and lights towards the close. Even this failed to rouse the crowd to the expected pitch, although Kronos received a generous reception nonetheless. Must try harder.    

By Stephen Graham