With little more than an hour between them, as the spectacle of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics began to the east of the capital, to the west, another spectacular event drew to a close - the complete cycle of all the Beethoven symphonies, given at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.
Every season at the BBC Proms is special, but in only its second full week, this season is already super-ordinary: Ludwig van Beethoven's nine symphonies performed at five concerts spread over eight nights by one orchestra – the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – and one conductor – Daniel Barenboim. Not for 70 years has a full Beethoven cycle been given at the Proms, and during those war-time years Sir Henry Wood conducted two orchestras – the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony; nor was it given over such a concentrated time period.
The symphonies were given in pairs, except for the last: Symphonies 1&2, 4&3, 6&5, 8&7 and 9. Each concert also included at least one piece by Barenboim's close friend, composer Pierre Boulez, a man whose compositions, frequently involving electronic music, are about as far from Beethoven's as one can imagine. It is no surprise that these two men should be such friends; both are fastidious in their attention to detail. In interview with Proms Director Roger Wright, Barenboim described how the two composers start from opposite poles: Beethoven takes complex musical ideas and constantly simplifies them, whereas Boulez starts with the simplest idea and weaves never-ending complexity into it. Many of his works are revisited and revised over many years.
The performances in this cycle have been nothing short of a revelation. Each symphony has sounded fresh and original. There's been nothing radical in Barenboim's readings of these works. For the most part tempi have been quite conventional with neither wallowing nor fireworks, it's simply that Barenboim has subtly illuminated the interior of the music in extraordinary detail. This is 21st Century performance. It's still all familiar territory, but seen anew, rather as the venerable Royal Albert Hall was seen after its extensive cleaning project was completed in 2004.
Another revelation has been Barenboim's prodigious memory. He conducted all nine symphonies entirely from memory and yet was intimately aware of every detail, seemingly ever bar – a little figure here on the bassoon, a counter-play there between violins and violas. We know that he memorised and played all Beethoven's piano sonatas while still a teenager, but he is now a man of 70 summers and such things come less easily. Even so, one has the feeling that if suddenly all copies of the scores of Beethoven's symphonies from around the world were to disappear, Barenboim could sit down and reproduce them with 100% accuracy.
While his conducting was very pro-active, constantly addressing one or other section of the orchestra, clearly cuing an entry by a section principal and so on, he has also allowed the orchestra simply to play, at times confident enough to reach back, rest one hand on the podium rail and just watch for a few seconds before turning back to control the next few bars. This is not a conductor in front of an orchestra, this is a man physically making music with them.
Watching him, one is reminded of the sorcerer in Walt Disney's animated film Fantasia, in the Paul Dukas Sorcerer's Apprentice segment. Here is the master – Maestro Barenboim – conjuring pure magic out of thin air. But in these concerts it is not the full-time professional Berliner Philharmoniker or the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestras that he is conducting, this is his personal project, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which he co-founded in 1999 with his great friend, the late Palestinian writer Edward Said. A part-time orchestra comprised almost entirely of Arab and Israeli musicians, they come together each summer to rehearse before taking their programme on tour. Leading the orchestra as its concertmaster is one of Barenboim's two sons, Michael Barenboim. The orchestra takes its name from Goethe's collection of poems, inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, entitled West-Eastern Divan. Its young musicians not only play together but inevitably discover what they have in common and discuss their differences.
This symphonic cycle is the culmination of a three-year project entitled Beethoven for All. Already this year they have played at Castel Gandolfo in Lazio at the personal invitation of Pope Benedict XVI, performed the Ninth symphony in the palace gardens at Versailles and given others of these symphonies in Munich, Geneva and Seville. After this London cycle they move on first to Berlin and then to the Salzburg Festival.
I must also praise the BBC for their excellent coverage of these Proms on both TV and radio. Sadly the TV broadcasts have not been in High Definition, but the production quality has been exemplary. Sufficient time has been given to showing Barenboim's conducting, but not to the extent of it being the MaestroCam we have had for the past couple of seasons. Please, please, please can we have the broadcasts made available on DVD, preferably Blue-Ray. I don't have a Blue-Ray player, but if the discs were available I would buy one specially.
In summary, without exaggeration I seriously believe this series will in the future be seen as one of the highlights of Beethoven performance of the last 200 years.
Until next time, happy listening.