A triumph of conviction over authenticity

Daniel Barenboim Royal Festival Hall, London
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Daniel Barenboim

Royal Festival Hall, London

The final prestissimo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony whirled and thundered to its conclusion. had hardly lowered his baton when the audience was on its feet. The atmosphere was like a revival meeting - in fact one woman raised her right hand skywards and began to sway slightly, like someone on an American Christian TV channel. Wedged firmly in my seat I felt churlish and uncomfortable: why not join in? After all, it had been a good performance.

But, one has a right to ask, how good? Barenboim's Eroica, in the first concert in this Festival Hall Beethoven cycle, had also been solidly impressive, though not quite impressive enough to eclipse memories of Valery Gergiev's electrifying and deeply stirring Eroica with the Rotterdam Philharmonic last year. Likewise Barenboim's Ninth: was this really on a par with John Eliot Gardiner's enthralling, revelatory Ninth with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique in last year's Proms? More to the point, perhaps, was this the kind of performance which uncovered new truths in a familiar work, or was it one which simply confirmed what one already knew?

It was, in fact, a thoroughly traditional performance: a slowish first movement and a very slow third movement (almost half Beethoven's marked speed!). Granted, some revered Beethoven interpreters of the past also took the third movement very slowly. In doing so, they certainly succeeded in imparting a Wagnerian religiosity to the music. But as Gardiner's performance showed so effectively, they missed plenty too - especially the rhythmic subtleties (the coda of the slow movement is a dance, for heaven's sake!) On the rhythmic level, Barenboim was just soggy. And as far as I could tell, the performance was based entirely on the old, corrupt versions of the score. Scholars have shown that those familiar editions bowdlerise some of Beethoven's most inspired touches. Does Barenboim not know about them, or did he choose to ignore them for the sake of tradition?

My biggest doubts, however, concerned the finale. "Even Beethoven thumped the tub," said Sir Thomas Beecham; "the Ninth Symphony was composed by a kind of Mr Gladstone of music." Gardiner's performance of the choral finale made me realise how wrong Beecham was; Barenboim's made me realise how Beecham could have made that mistake. True it was powerful, but it was also overly emphatic, underlining all its points with slow, solemn delivery or heavy blows to the lectern.

So, if there is more than a word of truth in what I'm saying, why did so many people obviously feel so differently? Leaving aside the star-factor explanations (too easy and too cynical), Barenboim's interpretation certainly carried conviction - and performances of Beethoven's symphonies with conviction are rare nowadays. The singing of the London Symphony Chorus was fine, and the playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle was superb: intensity, precision and constant attentiveness to Barenboim's direction. The solo team was way above average, bass Robert Holl in particular, delivering every word of the opening recitative as though it mattered. If you wanted to hear solidly traditional Beethoven, with few (if any) indications that tradition might have got it wrong, you could hardly do better by today's standards. Well, tradition is at least comforting, and comfort, rather than innovation, is what people today seem to want.