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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 36
  • Symphony #3 "Eroica" in E Flat Major, Op. 55
  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
  • Symphony #6 "Pastoral" in F Major, Op. 68
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Symphony #9 "Choral" in D minor, Op. 125 *
* Anja Harteros, soprano
* Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano
* Peter Seiffert, tenor
* René Pape, bass
* Vokalensemble Kölner Dom
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Decca Classics 4783511 5CDs
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When Daniel Barenboim is at his best he remains both a persuasive conductor and pianist. When he's presented with less than ideal working conditions he is usually dull. Mind you, that generally applies to everyone, but in Barenboim's case, he had a chance to avoid this, since there was no reason for these recordings. The first installment of "Beethoven for All" proves to be less than that, at least for those who love Beethoven. For not only is this Barenboim's second, and markedly inferior recording of these works, but his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra proves they aren't up to the task either.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was formed to promote Middle-East peace. That's a worthy cause, to be sure, but Barenboim could have used them to champion music that is underexposed, or even from their own culture. I am not suggesting that they restrict their repertoire in this manner, any more than I would demand that Gustavo Dudamel conduct only Latin-American classics. Rather, I am contending that young musicians from any part of the world would do themselves prouder if they worked with music they can connect and identify with. After all, if the orchestra – comprised of Israeli and Arabic musicians – ostensibly asks these players to set aside differences and unite, would it not be more exciting to hear them come together over something that they decide matters?

But even in the classical music industry, there are clichés. Beethoven seems to be the ultimate unification music. Remember Leonard Bernstein's Beethoven Ninth at the Berlin Wall in 1990? That performance featured hundreds of people who supposedly hated each other, making music that supposedly meant that they didn't anymore. It was also very slow, very heavy, and showed that Bernstein had very little strength left. Worst of all, it sold many more copies than the conductor's superb Ninth in Vienna on the same label. This project is sort of like that, a self-congratulatory effort that will sell copies on the premise at hand, instead of the results, and distract from Daniel Barenboim's marvelous Warner cycle.

That's not to say that these musicians don't care. Indeed, the early symphonies are mostly very good, and the singing of the chorus in this Ninth – with what sounds like a very young chorus – is genuinely moving. The playing is hearty and you get the distinct impression that everyone is trying as hard as they can. Unfortunately, Barenboim handicaps his own orchestra with a heavy and often sluggish approach that trades the composer's revolutionary spirit for pseudo-profundity. Always a very old-fashioned Beethoven conductor, everything has slowed considerably and the results are not improved. The Symphony #5 is probably the worst offender; the opening movement is mannered beyond belief, but is made even less palatable by the utter lack of tension. Elsewhere, the "big" symphonies are almost uniformly dull, with the Ninth probably the best of the lot.

I yield to few in my admiration for efforts that promote compassion and understanding throughout the world, but I also detest extra-musical marketing ploys. As fine as these young musicians are, they aren't shown in the best light here, and that to me is inexcusable. Yes, they will sell out Proms concerts for what they represent, but they also should be serving the music. The latter responsibility rests with Barenboim, and so the blame for this project must be put there. Beethoven for few.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman