West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: Live in Berlin

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim

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West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: Live in Berlin Review

by Blair Sanderson

Founded in 1999 by conductor Daniel Barenboim and scholar Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra primarily consists of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians who promote peace and understanding through their internationally acclaimed concerts and summer workshops. Since this ensemble was conceived with idealistic intentions, it is perhaps natural that Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral," Op. 125, should be a prominent work in its repertoire because of the work's theme of world brotherhood. As far as intentions go, this live 2006 performance is high-minded and serious, and for some it may be a moving listening experience; yet for others, it will seem overly reverent and stodgy and a bit heavy-handed and tedious. One may be tempted to blame this on the less than ideal abilities of the musicians or the relative inexperience of the group, as compared to long-established, virtuoso orchestras; but the sluggishness of this performance seems due mostly to Barenboim's old-school, late-Romantic interpretation and earnest desire to communicate in a big way, for the sake of this ensemble's mission to bring people together. While this is admirable in a humanitarian sense, it is less pleasing aesthetically, and Barenboim's overly broad reading makes the music seem too monumental, exaggerated, and deficient in true excitement or vitality, which are essential to Beethoven's style. While there is nothing lacking in the West-Eastern Divan's technical execution, its performance feels depleted of energy by the excessively slow tempo of the first movement, the erratic pacing of the Scherzo, and the slack phrasing of the Adagio. By the time one comes to the Finale, there is little reason to expect any fireworks, and the lethargic playing and weighty expressions put to rest any hopes of hearing a thrilling "Ode to Joy." The singing by bass René Pape, tenor Burkhard Fritz, soprano Angela Denoke, and mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is adequate, and the Choir of the German State Opera, Berlin, is all that a chorus needs to be to get by. But overall, this movement is labored and rough, and the listener is more than likely to feel physical discomfort at its end than spiritual elation. Warner's sound quality is decent for a live recording, though there is some variability of volume, and the orchestra lacks realistic dimensions.

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