Is Daniel Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra a political orchestra or a musical orchestra? As they reach the pivotal centre of their cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies, the question becomes more apparent. The visionary project of an orchestra that unites through music the various cultures of the Middle East has aught the imagination of a number of funding bodies and clearly there are some brilliant soloists in the orchestra. Programming short pieces of Pierre Boulez’s music alongside the Viennese symphonic masterpieces is similarly visionary and probably makes good television and any concert which concludes with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is almost bound to send the crowd away pleased.

But there was an air of a good University orchestra about tonight’s performances. Good or stunning soloists, for example the clarinet solos in the Sixth, and the feeling that the whole enterprise is being carried forward on boundless enthusiasm. Daniel Barenboim, as a serious and extremely experienced musician, senses this and was mostly conducting in the style of surfing the wave rather than directing the detail. This worked fine where Beethoven provides a clear pulse (as in much of the Fifth) but tended to a rather diffuse effect for the “Pastoral” Sixth.

Unfortunately the lack of a precision orchestra appears at first to deny us clear accounts reflecting Daniel Barenboim’s vision of Beethoven, though perhaps his vision of East being comfortable with West is more important in the world (being comfortable was the original meaning of “divan”). We do need peace in the Middle East and we are not expecting war to cease for the period of this Olympiad.  Do we need another view of Beethoven’s symphonies?

Yes, we should refresh and revisit Beethoven’s vision just as much as ever; the point is that this is Daniel Barenboim’s view of Beethoven’s great essays in music, Barenboim’s vision is West and East making great music together, even if (for now) they are rather more empathic with Beethoven’s martial styles than with his pastoral styles. Let’s hope for a memorable Ninth for the start of this Olympiad.

The Boulez works are scored for smaller ensembles and here the combined brilliance of the soloists and the players gave shining accounts of music that should no longer be considered “difficult”. Just try a bit harder and remember the “Eroica” was “difficult” in its day and Schubert’s great Ninth symphony considered unplayable.

Prom 12: Beethoven Cycle – Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major 'Pastoral'
Pierre Boulez: Mémoriale ('… explosante-fixe …' Originel)
Pierre Boulez: Messagesquisse
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor

Guy Eshed flute
Hassan Moataz El Molla cello, Proms debut artist
West–Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim conductor