This summer Daniel Barenboim has been conducting his first Beethoven symphony cycle in London. He's the first conductor since Henry Wood in 1942 to direct all nine symphonies in a single BBC Proms season. The culmination of this complete cycle happens on opening day of the Olympics when Barenboim leads the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
That orchestra has also recorded the nine symphonies, which have just been released as a box set.
In 1999 Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian author Edward Said (who died in 2003), set out to do the impossible. They created an orchestra that brought together Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab musicians. The orchestra only performs during the summer months, yet it's become the center of Barenboim's life, "I would give up everything for this," he exclaims. The orchestra was formed as Barenboim was looking for a way to bring together the two sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. This ensemble not only makes music; Barenboim says it's also a humanitarian effort on behalf of these musicians, who are able to gain a better understanding of one another's beliefs. "And what we do is, we encourage people to air their opinions," Barenboim explains, "and to have the curiosity to listen to the opinion of the others without [necessarily] agreeing with them."
More than a decade later, Barenboim is thrilled with the orchestra's progress. When they started out, some of the young musicians had never played in an orchestra, or ever heard one live in concert. So Barenboim has looked for repertoire that would allow the ensemble to grow. Beethoven's monumental symphonies are critical to that growth, according to Barenboim, because once you really get into these works you learn something relevant and important for all the music you play. This season the orchestra is releasing a series of recordings as part of their "Beethoven for All" project. The first in that series is this five-CD set of Beethoven's nine symphonies. Barenboim's rationale for the project is simple. Beethoven's music is a universal art for all time, all people. He says, "This music, although it was written by Beethoven in Bonn or in Vienna, speaks to people in Ramallah, in Australia and everywhere else. If you ask people who do not think of themselves as musically inclined, 'Who do you know?' they all say, 'Beethoven.' So if we want music for all, then it must be Beethoven!"
The West Eastern-Divan Orchestra performs Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 with thrilling energy and sense of purpose. The tempo is brisk, the rhythms are precise, and they execute each phrase with bold confidence.
In Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony No. 6, the thunderstorm in the fourth movement is electrifying, making your hair stand on end.
The first time this ensemble worked with text was with Beethoven's Ninth symphony. Barenboim says it's important to work with text because music is very abstract, and can be interpreted in many ways. The text enriches your understanding of the composer through your association with the language, "the moment you have text," he explains, "the associations become much more centered. The Beethoven Ninth says, 'All Men Will Become Brothers.' Well, you can argue what kind of brothers and how do you define all, and all these things, but it is a very concrete text and therefore, if you want to direct the world associations in a more narrow way, it is very important for the understanding of music."
A performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is never an ordinary event. Performing it at the largest music festival in the world just prior to the start of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, will make it a memory these musicians we never forget. The final vocal proclamation of mankind's ultimate goal — fraternity and equality for all — will hold a very special place in the hearts of these musicians, who for a few months out of the year are unified through the joy and healing power of music. This complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies with Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a box set you'll want to have on your record shelf.