From the timing to the personnel, it seemed as though extramusical interests would dominate the first complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies at the BBC Proms since 1942. Scheduled to end as the Olympic Games opened, the nine works that revolutionised the remit of orchestral music − shattering harmonic and structural conventions, describing the best and worst of humankind, proposing philosophical arguments in furls of woodwind, brass, strings and, finally, voices − were presented as a personal marathon for conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Arab, Israeli and Spanish players of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
In a typical Barenboim flourish, the music of another iconoclast, 87-year-old Pierre Boulez, would serve as a sort of sorbet between symphonies, cleansing palates with the shock of the (nearly) new.
Pugnacious survivor of a golden generation − see Christopher Nupen's 1970 film of the young Barenboim rehearsing Schubert's Trout Quintet with Du Pré, Perlman, Zukerman and Mehta − Barenboim has godlike status among those who abhor the influence of the early music movement on performance practice. There was little chance of hearing kettledrums in this cycle, and even less of seeing Barenboim share the stage with a sapling, as Ivan Fischer did in his performance of the Sixth Symphony. But while the Fifth and Sixth were titanic memorials to the Beethovenian traditions of Barenboim's youth − heavier, more didactic than his Brahms, and daubed with muddy octaves from the eight double-basses − the Seventh and Eighth were defiantly lithe.
From the birth of the scherzo in the First and Second Symphonies, and on to the stygian caves and sublime peaks of the Romantic landscape in the Fourth, the less-frequently played works were the most persuasive. Where the Funeral March of the Third Symphony had been crudely carved in stone, the Seventh's brief, devastating Allegretto was dry, understated, a miniature in grey. If Barenboim's tempi were broad, the pleasure of discerning each fleck of accompaniment when only a shadow of the central melody remains (in the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies) was immense.
WEDO is a mixed-ability orchestra but its finest players are very fine indeed, and, in the late-night performance of Beethoven's Quintet in E flat, open to a crisper, lighter, period-inflected style. With pianist Bishara Harouni behind them, oboist Ramon Ortega Quero, bassoonist Zeynep Koyluoglu, clarinettist Shirley Brill and horn-player Juan Antonio Jimenez leaned into each curve of consonance and dissonance. Flautist Guy Eshed was a constant in the six concerts: dazzling in the symphonies, in the futuristic trills of Boulez's diaphanous Mémoriale and the humid abstractions of Le marteau sans maître with contralto Hilary Summers. In Jussef Eisa's supple reading of Dialogue de l'ombre double and Michael Barenboim's elegant Anthèmes 2 it seemed as though Boulez's astral jazz was better suited to the venue than Beethoven. But Le marteau played to a much quieter, emptier auditorium, clearing the air for the Ninth Symphony: a bare fifth, electrified by collective force of will. From the metreless Mahlerian sweep of the Adagio to René Pape's thundering call to order ("O Freunde, nicht diese Töne") and the National Youth Choir's euphoric response, Barenboim's last Beethoven was a contrarian triumph.
Another old subversive holds the stage in Annilese Miskimmon's production of Verdi's Falstaff, the last and best of Opera Holland Park's 2012 season. Revolver in hand, hip-flask at the ready, campaign medals clinking like brass on a frisky shire horse, Olafur Sigurdarson's scabrous Shakespearean hero is malingering in a military convalescent home in a war-time Home Counties village with his louche sidekicks Pistol and Bardolph (Simon Wilding and Brian Galliford), stealing wheelchairs and petty cash from the amputees. From village green to graveyard (designs by Nicky Shaw), Little Windsor is a model of propriety. All men of an age for active service are absent, except the clerics (George von Bergen's John Cleese-esque Reverend Ford and Christopher Turner's Dr Caius) and flat-footed, bespectacled Fenton (Benjamin Hulett), and the coast is clear for Sir John's assault on the virtue of the Merry Wives.
Were Went the Day Well? reimagined as a comedy it might look like this. For it is Linda Richardson's prim Alice Ford, Carolyn Dobbin's saucy Meg Page, Carole Wilson's seen-it-all Mistress Quickly and Rhona McKail's dowdy, frustrated Nanetta who lead the resistance against Falstaff, sharpening their knitting needles with vim in "Pizzica, stuzzica!". Behind the slapstick and the laundry-basket bedroom farce, the stakes are high. The chill terror of aging, the sour burn of sexual jealousy and the red mist of injured pride are kept fizzing along in Verdi's Indian-summer score by the City of London Sinfonia under Peter Robinson. In Sigurdarson's Act III soliloquy you feel he might fire his gun at any moment. Instead, he pees into the Thames with a satisfied grunt and readies himself for another skirmish.
The cast have a ball in this madrigalian extravaganza. Miskimmon's handling of the finale is deft − a tangle of bunting and fairy-wings − and Falstaff's defense inarguable. Without troublemakers like him, would Ford and Alice kiss as passionately as they do? So let's hear it for Falstaff, Verdi and the other vieilles terribles: Beethoven, Boulez and Barenboim.
'Falstaff': (0300-999 1000) to 3 August
The Aldeburgh World Orchestra makes its BBC Proms debut tonight with The Rite of Spring with Sir Mark Elder. L’Arpeggiata explore the tarantella in tomorrow’s Chamber Music Prom at Cadogan Hall, while the Royal Albert Hall hosts choral greats this week, from Belshazzar’s Feast to A Child of Our Time. Tête à Tête’s Opera Festival opens Thursday at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, west London, with new work from Catherine Kontz, The Warehouse Ensemble and Ergo Phizmiz (free entry for those dressed as frogs).
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