The Proms are really hotting up and it's unusual to have two outstanding but so fundamentally contrasted concerts in quick succession before the final weeks. After Gustavo Dudamel brought a trio of works laden down with extra-musical associations, Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave us a very different programme.
This is an orchestra which carries with it hopes for peace in the Middle East, so it has enough extra-musical significance of its own; perhaps Dudamel's Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra is the only other ensemble whose very appearance on a stage comes close as a sign of music as a force for good.
Although the orchestra's existence is inextricably linked with politics, Barenboim had chosen a programme of music pure: works by Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms. He gave us Wagner - still unofficially banned in Israel - for the encore, but it was the Meistersinger Prelude, a piece which in its archaic counterpoint and clean melodic lines is arguably as close to absolute music as Wagner ever came.
This concert was part of the orchestra's annual tour, undertaken after an intensive course under Barenboim's leadership at their base near Seville. While the obvious friendship struck up between players from different ends of the religious and political spectrum was moving in itself, the closeness between the members of the orchestra and their joint-founder (it was founded by Barenboim and the late Edward Saïd) made for music-making of the highest quality too. Having enjoyed the kind of intense period of rehearsal rarely allowed to regular orchestras, they obviously knew the works backwards and there were times in the Brahms and Haydn when Barenboim just left them to it for bars at a time, casually leaning back or reaching for a handkerchief to wipe his brow.
Four members of the orchestra made up the solo quartet in Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B flat and produced a performance full of joyful urbanity and chamber-music intimacy. Guy Braunstein's violin playing was classical refinement personified, and he tossed off the runs and tricky figures tailored for Johan Peter Salomon, the violinist and impresario who brought Haydn to London, with humour and charm. Hassan Moataz El Molla negotiated the cello part's high tessitura with great skill, singing its long lines sweetly. Mor Biron's garrulous bassoon and Ramón Ortega Quero's seductive oboe completed the picture. Barenboim's conducting was economical and, as often during the concert, he occasionally let his remarkable players off the leash, allowing them to fall back on their comprehensive preparation and innate musicianship.
Barenboim wisely took no such risks with Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Op.31, marshalling his forces with a military precision and discipline. As well as the orchestra's astonishing technical command, which left them free to explore the emotion of this remarkable work, time and again I was bowled over by the sheer quality of the sound they produced. The string tone, in particular, was bright but rich, powerful but flexible. They made Schoenberg's score – his first extended orchestral work using the famous twelve-tone technique – come across not simply as a product of a formidable musical intellect to be admired, but as a beautiful and intensely emotional piece to feel connected to.
Schoenberg's admiration for Brahms is well documented and the latter's Fourth Symphony, perhaps the greatest example of his craft, made a sensible coupling. As well as being a miracle of compositional technique, it is also a marvel of melodic and harmonic inspiration. Its ardent romanticism is carefully contained within expertly extended classical and – in the famous passacaglia finale – baroque forms. The balance is often difficult to strike between the subjective and objective in this work but, despite a flexible pulse and a undeniably grand romantic sweep, Barenboim's reading never lost its formal moorings or became bogged down in treacly romanticism.
Barenboim's masterly and powerful reading of the score was only half the story, though, since his marvellous orchestra not only knew the work inside out but were acutely responsive to their conductor's instructions, from the minutest adjustments of tempo and dynamics to firmly administered gear shifts in the finale. Added to that was the sound they produced: as in the Schoenberg, it was at once mellow and penetrative, sharply focussed and expressive; it was near ideal for the music and showed how an orchestra can master the Albert Hall's tricky acoustic.
After the Brahms, Barenboim addressed the audience briefly. He was less interested, he told us, in taking the opportunity to talk about what was wrong with the Middle East, instead he gestured towards his orchestra describing them, to the loudest cheer of the evening, as 'what's right with the Middle East.'
No-one would disagree, but this was also music-making that transcended politics and the miraculously lofty and long-breathed Meistersinger encore provided final, eloquent testimony to that fact.
By Hugo Shirley