The power of 5

It has taken me nearly a week to  realize that I am still in a state of shock.

Last Saturday I attended the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s first visit to the Royal Festival Hall, under their conductor and co-founder Daniel Barenboim. If you want to read an analytical review, you’ve come to the wrong place, there was plenty of press coverage. There will be little that an amateur enthusiast like me can add: and yet I must try, because I can see no other way to help me through what I can only describe as a recovery phase.

What is it about the number 5 when it comes to symphonies? Bruckner, Beethoven, Sibelius, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Schubert – all of them seem to have reserved a certain something in their armoury when a fifth symphony loomed. In his 41 symphonies, Mozart is the obvious exception. (Brahms would surely have been on the list – if only he’d got round to writing another after his fourth.)

And Tchaikovsky, whose fifth symphony comprised the second half of last weekend’s concert. You might decide you don’t have the 12 minutes to listen to this final movement, but I am hoping you will trust me that it’s worth it. Take time out; turn up the volume as loud as you dare; sit down; and marvel. It’s bombastic, tumultuous, energetic, at times frenzied. But ultimately it is outright defiant, a triumphant statement of hope over adversity.

The critics in 1888 were almost universal in their disparagement when Tchaikovsky conducted its first performance, which wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to the composer, for he did himself pronounce it a complete failure.

Audiences today appreciate it as one of his finest works, and on Saturday I was left almost breathless by a performance about which all who were there will one day recall “I was there” and those who were not “will think themselves acursed they were not here”. I cannot remember a live performance of anything which has so consumed me: never in my life have I witnessed such an ovation.

The concert was a tribute to Jacqueline du Pré, who was married to Barenboim until her death almost exactly thirty years ago, and undoubtedly this added an extra dimension to the event. Kian Soltani was the soloist in a mesmerizing account of Richard Strauss’s ‘Don Quixote‘ in the first half. And then he followed an example of something which I’m reliably informed was du Pré’s habit – he joined his fellow musicians to participate in the second half.

You may think this a minor observation, but it was clear to anyone in the hall who’d noticed that his impact was pivotal. Barenboim drove them hard, but in the midst of them all Soltani looked urgently from left to right. “Let’s go for it” was the message in his face, the result a visible, as well as audible, wave through the entire orchestra. The bond was as tight as it possible to be. You could not put a cigarette paper between them.

Stop and think for one moment of the emotions this stirs up in an orchestra made up of Palestinians and Israelis.

In contrast to my comments above, I would recommend you do not let yourself be distracted by the visuals here. Just wallow in these glorious themes and find yourself almost laughing at the demands the composer is making of his players. This is as good a recording  as I can find, but the concert, broadcast on BBC R3 on Monday 29th October, is still available on iPlayer.

Click here for now –








4 thoughts on “The power of 5”

  1. Marvelous write-up and performance! This took me back to my childhood. I was a pre-teen, and Tchaikovsky’s fifth was the first record I bought. The record was on sale. I didn’t know what I was carrying home. I sat entranced while listening and couldn’t stop playing it.


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