Proms 2012: Beethoven’s Choral Symphony

This year, for the first time, I listened to all the BBC Proms concerts from the Albert Hall. Partly from a sense of cultural duty – I love The Proms as an enlightened institution, making the best music available for everyone. In practice, I only watch the Last Night, this being the only occasion when I can freely express a rather guilty and nuanced patriotism.

So I decided to do it up right, and downloaded every concert onto the BBC iPlayer. But rather than watch them, I minimised the window, and used them as background music to whatever else I was doing. This is not the best way to enjoy great music. I should know better, having gone to many live concerts at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle.

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony is the first one I actually watched, as well as listened to, and I can see what I’ve been missing. It’s the orchestra, making this incredible music, and their interaction with the conductor. Daniel Barenboim has conducted the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the entire sequence of Beethoven symphonies during this season’s prom, culminating in the Ninth. It’s particularly moving to hear an orchestra, founded to help heal the division between Israelis and Palestinians, playing this great paean to our common humanity.

The BBC coverage is superb. Television allows the camera to focus on the conductor and soloists, showing us their most intimate reactions – the utter seriousness of the musicians while they’re playing, the relaxation, smiles, interactions, between movements, and their focus on the conductor. Barenboim is completely immersed, his intense concentration reflected in precise movements and facial expressions, which are only interrupted by wiping the sweat from his face. Oh, once he scratched his nose.

This is such a treat to see music being made. For anyone who thinks you only need the final movement, with its glorious Ode to joy, to understand what Beethoven is saying – you’re wrong. The symphony is all about the struggle to reach that joy, sometimes stopping or faltering in its journey. The music works to achieve that finale, just as joy comes through struggle in real life.

Here’s the entire performance.

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