Barenbolm/West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, London
Falstaff, Opera Holland Park, London

Daniel Barenboim displays persuasive subtlety and style with his complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies at the Proms

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

Critic's Choice

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).

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015