Striding onto Budapest’s House of Music stage to engage in a short chat with program moderator Marcell Dénes-Worowski, violinist Michael Barenboim, wearing a bright fuchsia-pink tie, was asked to introduce his West-Eastern Divan Ensemble to Hungarian audiences for the first time.
“This group came out of a workshop in 1999, where we had such a huge number of applicants that we decided to turn it into an orchestra [the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is composed of musicians from Israel and Palestine]. We became a musical ensemble that can play anywhere except in the countries they are from!” he joked. The son of pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim and pianist Elena Bashkirova, Michael exudes a confident demeanor that reflects his musical royalty, whether talking or playing.
And play he did, as both the eloquent leader of this string octet, and as soloist. The program included works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and French-Lebanese composer Benjamin Attahir. In the elegant, glass paneled auditorium’s clean and transparent acoustics, the group’s equally as elegant treatment of Mendelssohn’s famous Octet in E-flat shone, especially in the third movement’s shimmering and breathless pianissimos.
As their curtain-raiser, Schubert’s Rondo in A major was a mini-concerto for Barenboim, which he played from memory, alongside a string quartet. Later, guest pianist József Balogh joined Barenboim for a joyous turn in Schubert’s Sonata ‘Grand Duo,’ a light-hearted and dazzling showpiece for both artists. In both works, Barenboim displayed effortless mastery of tone, technique, and full expression of Schubert’s exuberant style.
The Attahir work, entitled Jawb, was written for the group’s inaugural tour in 2020, just before the pandemic hit. The octet dug into the composer’s fury and fire with devotion and acumen. It’s a post-modern work that occasionally channels the spirit of Shostakovich, but it never seemed to gather enough steam to the point of releasing the ongoing tension. On the other hand, that factor might have described the seemingly endless chaos of the Middle East. Deep within the group for the larger works, violist Miriam Manasherov contributed notably glorious tone and expertise.
Despite the implied egalitarian billing of the ensemble’s international members, their 2022 Europe touring program is clearly a vehicle for Barenboim, whose musical gifts demonstrate he’s a powerhouse of not only considerable solo prowess but leadership skills.
- The program was presented by Filharmónia Magyarország.