Prom 18: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

There is nothing quite like Beethoven's Choral Symphony. The most cosmic of Beethoven's works in its journey from darkness and chaos to light and unity, it is also the most brazen in its humanism. Introducing the final movement's setting of Schiller's high-minded drinking song, Beethoven has the bass soloist interrupt the orchestra with a piercing call to leave behind "these sounds. Let us rather sing something ... full of joy". But the musicians don't really leave anything behind; instead they are drawn into a whole new symphony, and musical era, formed from the embers of what came before.

While Barenboim's orchestra of young Arab, Israeli and European musicians obviously can't breathe life into the exhausted embers of the Middle-East peace process by themselves, they can remind us that the greatest music-making works by absorbing the hopes, desires and tastes of its own era. I have witnessed both fierier and better sculpted performances of the Ninth, but I have not heard a more infectious one, nor one in which Beethoven's exhortation to mankind to overcome its divisions was conveyed with more natural feeling.

No orchestra is above reproach, of course, and Barenboim's ambitiously broad tempi in the first movement, and striving in the slow movement for a sense of line capable of intimating eternity, presented challenges which the strings occasionally struggled to meet. The somewhat strident tone of the soprano soloist Anna Samuil, though impressively penetrating, will not have been to all tastes. But discomfort and the sense of individuals striving collectively to wring beauty from intractable material is what this work is really about. Give it too much polish, and the enterprise can ring false.

That said, there can be no gainsaying the tremendously fresh contribution of the National Youth Choir, whose members delivered an encounter with Beethoven's hymn to the intoxications of freedom that none of them should ever forget. The four soloists were led into their battle by the clarion tones of René Pape, a bass whose vocal depth and presence anchored some of the most challenging ensemble writing in the repertoire. As for Barenboim, concluding a week of extraordinary concerts by shaking the hand of every member of the orchestra, his old-fashioned musical and political ideas once again proved themselves both noble and necessary, and he made the Proms' unofficial preamble to the Olympics both an honour, and a joy, to behold.

Available on iPlayer until Saturday. If you're at any Prom this summer, tweet your thoughts about it to @guardianmusic using the hashtag #proms, and we'll pull what you've got to say into one of our weekly roundups – or leave your comments below


Guy Dammann

The GuardianTramp

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