BBC Proms 2012: Barenboim, Beethoven & the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

117 years of the BBC Proms there have been 983 performances of Beethoven’s symphonic works, compared to 338 by Mozart, 313 by Brahms and 115 by Mahler. Beethoven symphonies are as much a part of the Proms season as Henry Wood’s bust looking over the stage and auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall.

In 2012, there’s a new twist to the perennial favourite.  Venerated conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim returns to the BBC Proms with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra to perform the first in their special Beethoven symphony concerts, the first time all nine works have been performed at the Proms in one entire cycle in 60 years.

Daniel Barenboim

Is that sufficient to explain the buzz around this special series of concerts?

Even though I usually steer well clear of anything a large crowd is stampeding towards, I still couldn’t help dipping my toe in the water to see if there were any tickets still available for the cycle.

Momentarily forget there are day tickets at £5 available for each of the five concerts (if you’re prepared / have the time to spare to queue for them), imagine instead of the relative comfort of a cushioned seat.  As of 6.55pm on Wednesday early evening there were between only 1 and 6 tickets available for each of the five Barenboim concerts.

I confess I was tempted to buy one for one of those concerts and join the rest of approximately 4,500 strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall. Last year I wouldn’t have thought twice of reach for my credit card to stump up £45 for a seat in the stalls (my Promming days are over). This year things are different. I’m listening on the radio.

But why has this run of concerts been so popular? Is it Beethoven, his music, the performers or the marathon of a week-long symphony cycle?

To be clear, symphony cycles aren’t that unusual. Artistic directors across the world sigh with relief whenever a composer anniversary approaches. Programming ideas suddenly become easier. Year-long seasons can be mapped out with ease. Interest builds, ticket sales follow. Symphony cycles are common things.

But, the same band performing a complete cycle performed in a reasonably short space of time- say, a week as in the case of the Proms Beethoven cycle – is quite unusual. And it places a different kind of pressure on performers too.  In all except one of Barenboim’s Proms appearances this year, each concert features two symphonies (that’s a lot of Beethoven in itself) with another work sandwiched in between. Yes, there’s a day’s rest between each one (there’s a few extra days ahead of the 9th symphony), but there’s only one live performance of each. There’s risk there. Jeopardy.  The musical equivalent of an Olympic challenge with the prospect of winning a bright and shiny medal at the end of it, figuratively speaking. A chance for Barenboim to make one big, bold statement.

And therein lies one of the other challenges inherent in one orchestra performing one entire cycle: bold statements. If a conductor wants to embark on a set of recordings committing his interpretation of say Mahler’s symphonies, then he does at least have the relative luxury of re-recording sections which don’t go well in the first take. The critics laud the interpretation illustrated in the recordings. Listeners hear near-perfection. Everyone gets very excited. PR people rub their hands together with glee. Recording projects start crawling their way up the downloads chart. Reputations are built on such projects, musical legacies slightly easier to shape.

A live performance – or as in this case an entire series of them – brings in two altogether bigger risks: it’s live and there’s only one of each. The evidence critics can draw upon in their assessment is altogether more fluid, and because it’s a cycle, so the reputational stakes are higher.

Should that really matter? Shouldn’t we just sit back and listen to the music and forget who’s playing and why and what they’ve got to lose? Of course, this should be about the music, primarily. But just like any gripping Beethoven symphony (the 2nd onwards, in my opinion), we all need a bit of tension in our entertainment so that we appreciate the release all the more when it arrives.

My inner (rather tired) old cynic wonders whether the reason there’s been such a rush on tickets has been down to Barenboim himself. The man has graduated into an  elder statesman role in the classical music world, a man with a pedigree linking him with all manner of venerated musicians from the past. Like Menuhin in the late 1990s, Barenboim has an ‘aura’ about him wherever he goes, not as a result of an out of control ego, more a reflection of those who admire him. He is old school celebrity. A throw-back to a classical music past.

While some commentators are quick to denigrate traditions of the past of which the perception of the older experienced maestro forms part, there is at the same time an undeniably reassuring feeling of continuity when someone with a consistently successful career behind him steps up to the plate again.

And it’s because of that and the hard-earned and well-deserved reputation that Barenboim has acquired that he should be wanting to do something special with these performances, not just for himself, but for the young, hugely talented and professional members of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra he is working with on this cycle.

But there’s more pressure than that and not just on the band and their conductor. It’s on the audience too.

During the Proms’ 117 history, there hasn’t been a single year when a Beethoven symphony hasn’t been performed.  Ranked by increasingly popularity, the third symphony ‘Eroica’  takes up 3rd position with a total of 115 performances, the fifth second with 142 and the 9th  in first place with an astonishing 167. Up until the 1960s it wasn’t uncommon for some works to be performed twice in one season.

Out of all of the symphonies performed at the Proms, performances of Beethoven doubles that of Mozart even if the trend for both over the past seven year is declining. Beethoven still remains popular. Yes, Mozart might be ‘genius’ (he also happened to churn out quite a lot of dull stuff in my opinion)To coin a phrase, his symphonies put ‘bums on seats’.

Paul Kidea writing in The Proms (2005) dismisses the idea that the repetition of Beethoven’s symphonic is evidence of ‘checklist programming’, pointing to the original founder Henry Wood’s reliance on Beethoven works as the backbone of the concert repertoire as evidence of a desire to educate the audience with what in later years would be referred to – sometimes sneeringly – as ‘standard repertory’. Of course, with the BBC involved with its remit to ‘inform, educate and entertain’, one hand washes the other. Beethoven equals ticket sales: let’s do Beethoven more.

But I believe that it is because Beethoven’s symphonies are well-known and popular, that Barenboim and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra will have to do something different or special to leave a lasting impression. Will that legacy be formed by a normalized assessment of the cycle as a whole, or will critics hail individual symphonies instead? Will repeat capacity audiences make for an ambient atmosphere which eclipses the performances themselves?

As someone reasonably familiar with the music, I hope for the statistically unlikely: that everyone in the Royal Albert Hall – audience included – will be on top form such that those performances are as historic as their billing leads me to believe they will be. I would hate to get to the end of this special cycle and think: “It wasn’t as good as I was expecting it would be.”

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