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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor op.68 [50:26]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Leonora Overture No.3 op.72a [16:48]
Giovanni BOTTESINI (1821-1889)
Fantasia on themes by Rossini (arr. for cello, double bass and orchestra by Michinori Bunya) [14:15]
Kyril Zlotnikova (cello), Nabil Shehata (double bass - Bottesini)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, 20 August 2006, Palacio de Carlos V, Alhambra, Granada, Region 0. Disc format: DVD9. PCM Stereo/DD 5.1/DTS 5.1
EUROARTS 2055538 [85:00]



The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, brainchild of Daniel Barenboim and the late literary scholar Edward Said, is as much a state of mind as it is a musical phenomenon. Listening to Daniel Barenboim’s Reith Lectures on the BBC last year, it was clear that the conductor’s intention was to cut through any stereotypical or pre-conditioned ideas about certain peoples and cultures, and the attitudes developed about them by historical events and political cultivation. He clearly rejects the continuation of an atmosphere of mistrust which makes the Middle and Near-East a hotbed of unrest regarded by the rest of the world with incomprehension or nervous unease. Anyone listening cannot help but have impressed by the disarming way in which Barenboim destroyed all arguments against the legitimacy of his aims with the orchestra through simple logic and direct, rational reasoning.

As a writer and musician I’ve sat among people from more nationalities than I could name, and know what happens if you sit an Israeli from Haifa opposite a Palestinian. After the usual social sparring and finding of common ground, of which there are almost invariably large amounts, they’ll soon be exchanging jokes about anything from people’s accents and the difficulties in learning Arabic and the pitfalls of trying to speak it in different regions. They’re soon laughing about a myriad of subjects, from eccentric parents to pesky siblings – all of the things we ‘normal’ folk would talk about in fact. The only danger is how quickly the rest of us northerners are left out, looking on in fascination and enjoying the quick-witted and amusing anecdotes, and feeling rather parochial in face of all that globetrotting worldliness.
 
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is made up of young musicians from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. The name of the orchestra is derived from a collection of poems by Goethe, ‘Divan’ being in this context a council chamber or legislative assembly. Goethe’s aim “to break free from the conditioning present and to transport ourselves for a moment into a state of boundless freedom in keeping with our feelings” is a very strong aspect of the orchestra’s concept and programming, aiming to overcome prejudice and achieve a state of being which is free of rancour. While the orchestra continues to meet once a year from its inception in 1999 the situation in the Middle and Near East has not improved, and the annual rehearsals are currently based in Seville.
 
This concert took place on a hot evening on 20 August 2006 in the world-heritage site of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. The circular arena in which the concert was held is open to the sky, and is a space which is both grand and intimate at the same, the sound quality being very good and the atmosphere tangible. The audience is well-behaved and well filtered, the only coughs being distant and muffled. As Werner Pfister rightly points out in the booklet notes, the music always comes first, and there is no reason to see this DVD as dutiful support of a noble cause. While there is the occasional mild intonation ‘moment’ you almost invariably find with a genuine live concert recording, the playing is always to a very high standard, and the musicians clearly hold Barenboim in the highest regard and with the greatest of respect. There are many shots from in front of the conductor, showing his communicative powers, his sense of nuance both musically and as a ‘manager’ of the band – encouraging and drawing the best from his musicians, but making no compromise in terms of style or interpretative detail.

While on the subject of camera work, the direction is in general well thought-through, with plenty of variety of angles without giving anyone sea-sickness, and in fact with some nice moments, such as when the image opens out along with the music through the simple device of a camera moving from behind a pillar. There are no pretentious effects and few errors, just one where you see a clarinet, who is at that moment in fact doubling far more audible horns, and the poor horn soloist in the ‘big solo’ in the last movement hardly gets a look in. The concentration on the music and musicians is only broken by views of the audience during applause, and you certainly get a fine sense of the good natured and special atmosphere of the occasion. 
 
Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No.3 very much becomes the symphonic poem its thematic diversity suggests, with plenty of dramatic weight and subtle dynamics. We never get to see the off-stage trumpeter, but the whole thing is highly involving and superbly played. I’ve never been a great fan of Bottesini in general or romantic virtuosity-lead double bass solos in general, but orchestral member Nabil Shehata proves himself a more than capable soloist in the Fantasia on themes by Rossini. The arrangement with cello as the other soloist does ease the pressure a little, but the two players still have their work cut out for them. Having the triangle player at the front of the orchestra is a nice touch, but the rest of the orchestra does seem to be a good deal lower in the recorded level than for the rest of the concert – some of the wind playing almost vanishing in the mix.
 
On to the main feature, which is Brahms’s Symphony No.1. Barenboim may or may not be making or emphasising a point with this music, but the hard-won struggle which the composer himself had with the creation of his first symphony certainly comes across effectively. The first movement has a measured pace, with not a grace note or passing theme which gets the full weight of emphasis. The Allegro may be a bit more non troppo than some readings, but Barenboim makes up for any dearth of virtuoso spectacle by digging deeper than many others. This is not a stodgy or overly heavy reading of the score, but the drama comes out of the orchestration and the various characters in each theme. I bet some of you might not even realise there was a double-bassoon in there: after this you’ll certainly never forget it. You can just imagine him rehearsing certain sections, getting the violins to sing the rising counter-theme like the call of someone lost in the wilderness, the darkness of some of the bass lines – passion, pain and paradise exiting together in that one incredible movement.

The Andante sostenuto second movement has some lovely wind solos, and the warmth and expressive playing from the strings comes through well, although I was a little less enamoured of the leader’s vibrato in the rather overly spot-lit solo. The more relaxed, chamber-music like moments in the Scherzo show how well in control Barenboim is – he hardly needs to ‘conduct’ at such moments, allowing trust in the sensitivity of the musicians to take charge. The final movement is a joy of sustained structure and well-timed moments of restraint and exuberance. As the daylight fades over the auditorium the music seems to come ever more into life, and reprises and recapitulations are never mere repeats – the energy seems to grow each time, and one can’t help feeling that Barenboim and Brahms are in full agreement. There is certainly no hamming up of any of the more significant moments, including that vital penultimate brass chorale, and the intensity remains white hot to the end.     
 
The other tracks on the DVD are some straight promotion with trailers of some other recordings by Barenboim and, for some reason, one by Abbado. There’s also a picture gallery with some nice views of the palace, and the setting up and rehearsal on the afternoon before the evenings concert – nothing too spectacular, and perhaps just a small shame there is no word from Barenboim on the subject of the orchestra. All things considered this is a very fine release by any standards. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra prove themselves to be far beyond being a mere novelty, and while there may be arguments as to why this recording of Brahms’s 1st Symphony won’t knock others from your shelves, you may find it ever harder to come up with them the more you listen to this performance.
 
Forty years after the Six Days War,  I certainly don’t underestimate the issues which exist in the Middle-East. If people from these nationalities can come together to work so hard and create such marvellous music together, we are however left wondering why something so easy as deciding not to kill each other is so difficult to achieve.
 
Dominy Clements 
 



 


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