Proms 48, 49 & 50: Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz | Mendelssohn, Berg | Beethoven: Fidelio

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

Royal Albert Hall, 23 August 2009 3 stars4 stars3.5 stars

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York TimesAn undoubted highlight of last year's Proms was the main concert of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: a slightly stern programme of Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms that showed the talented youngsters and their co-founder and conductor, Daniel Barenboim, in the best possible light.

Their return this season for a three-concert mini-residence was hotly anticipated, the atmosphere in the Albert Hall even warmer and more appreciative, given that the remarkable orchestra celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Barenboim's achievement in keeping alive the idea he and the late Edward Said had for celebrating Weimar as European City of Culture a decade ago is remarkable, no less so is the fact that, on their best form, this orchestra can rival any in the world.

While the quality of Barenboim's musicians was beyond doubt, the choices of repertoire on this occasion denied them the chance to shine as much as one might have hoped. The ups and downs of the first concert were dictated by the conductor's own feel for the music at hand: the first half of Liszt (Les préludes) and Wagner (the 'Prelude' and 'Liebestod' from Tristan and Isolde) was magnificent; Barenboim's plushly upholstered but unidiomatic Symphonie fantastique, on the other hand, was a disappointment.

I've always had a soft spot for the raw dynamism and power of Les préludes, but while on previous hearings enjoyment has always been tempered by doubts about the clunkiness of some of Liszt's compositional technique in the work, there were no such reservations here. Rarely can the work have sounded so masterful as moulded by Barenboim into a coherent, consummately crafted whole. The orchestra's miraculous string section – flexible yet gloriously warm – was complemented by warm, controlled brass. Far from rare on record, this was the work's first performance at the Proms in over forty-five years: on this hearing it's definitely worth a comeback.

Few conductors have a closer affinity with Wagner these days than Barenboim and this performance of the 'Prelude' and 'Liebestod' was one to cherish. Impossibly long-breathed phrases were spun out exquisitely by the strings and the climaxes, bolstered by luxurious cushions of brass were perfectly regulated. Only the wind players suffered a little from the balance, but that and their slight intonation problems in the final pages did little to detract from the overall impression.

The reticence of the woodwind was, for me, just one of several problems in the performance of the Symphonie fantastique that followed. On the whole, the qualities that made the first half so enjoyable only served to smooth other the jagged edges that make Berlioz's work such a revolutionary masterpiece. The result was a performance that was refined when it should have been frenzied (an overly civilised account of the E flat clarinet's famously delirious take on the Idée fixe in the 'Dream of a Sabbath Night' a case in point), that was over-wrought when it should have been elegant (at the Ball) and rhythmically stolid when it should have danced effortlessly and propelled itself forcefully. The playing was never of anything less than the highest quality and there were some exquisite moments in the 'Scene in the Country' but this remained a strangely soggy affair. The preposterously loud bells in the final movement only seemed to emphasise the tensions between Berlioz's score and the normalizing tendencies of Barenboim's reading that made the performance so frustrating.   

No such tension existed in the late night Prom that followed. There were signs of tiredness in a performance of Mendelssohn's glorious Octet –  led by Guy Braunstein, the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, who'd spent the first concert tucked away in the rank-and-file first violins – but just the right sense of joyous music-making, miraculously communicated across the vast space of the well-filled Albert Hall. Better still was a taut and impassioned reading of Berg's Chamber Concerto, Barenboim conducted the orchestra's outstanding wind and brass with precision while violinist Michael Barenboim (the conductor's son) and pianist Karim Said (a relative of Edward Said) negotiated the hugely challenging solo parts with fearless virtuosity.

Waltraud MeierOne single work made up the programme for the orchestra's final concert, also their final of this year's tour: Beethoven's Fidelio. Barenboim had assembled a cast around two of his long term collaborators, Waltraud Meier (Leonora) and John Tomlinson (Rocco), but also paid tribute to Edward Said by using his English narration rather than the usual spoken dialogue. This last decision, however, made for a rather strange evening, with Meier narrating initially live before, as the narration morphed into a voice over, being left to provide facial commentary in a manner more soap-opera than opera. We were left with a strange hybrid, neither sufficiently dramatic nor a convincing way of presenting the Fidelio-as-oratorio argument.

The cast was variable, too, both in terms of singing and engagement. The stage animal Meier was like a caged tiger; denied her natural environment her vocal deficiencies – rarely an issue in the theatre – were exposed to cruel scrutiny. As Marzelline, on the other hand, Adriana Kucerova sang off score with only the slightest engagement. Tomlinson's Rocco bellowed away reassuringly but, despite forgetting his words in the 'Gold Aria', at least he characterized his role. Stephan Rügamer made little impression as Jaquino while Gerd Grochowski – a late replacement as Don Pizarro – was efficient rather than imposing, without the heft or top the role requires.

As well as providing a dramatically disappointing experience, there was some frustration at not being able to hear much of the great work from the orchestra. Their account of the Leonora III overture – chosen ahead of the usual Fidelio overture – was magnificent and their playing, when not masked by the lacklustre work of the vocalists, was beyond reproach. There's something awry, however, when beside the Quartet (given with rapt beauty here) the orchestral introductions to arias stick in the mind as highlights in Act One.

Matters improved considerably, however, in the Finale, as well as the second act. The introduction of another dramatically engaged singer in Simon O'Neill's solid Florestan seemed to help the other cast coalesce. On the whole, things were most successful when Fidelio became less opera and more oratorio, when the jarring juxtaposition of narration and music happened less often, with Beethoven's symphonic instincts propelling things forward. As such, the final scene - with great work from the BBC Singers and Geoffrey Mitchall Choir - was stirring, powerful and moving as it should be, even if I wished we'd had it preceded by another overture à la Mahler in which to enjoy more of the orchestra on their own.

By Hugo Shirley

Photos: Daniel Barenboim © Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times; Waltraud Meier line

Related articles:

Concert review: Handel's Partenope at this year's Proms
Concert review: The Proms chamber music series opens at Cadogan Hall
Concert review: Purcell's The Fairy Queen at this year's Proms
Concert review: The First Night of the 2009 Proms