fri 01/07/2022

Ma, LSO, Tilson Thomas, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Ma, LSO, Tilson Thomas, Barbican Hall

Ma, LSO, Tilson Thomas, Barbican Hall

A blistering finale to the LSO's triptych of 20th-century music

Michael Tilson Thomas: A dynamic performer who never risks becoming a showman

What rare luxury. A three-concert series from the London Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Guest Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is lure enough, but add three collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist and you have to rope off a special area in the Barbican for the returns queue. Rarer still – it would be worth every moment of the wait.

The concert-triptych has been a meditation on musical friendships and relationships, with long-time colleagues Ma and Tilson Thomas paying homage to the complex network of emotions and influences that existed between Britten, Copland and Shostakovich, three composers who looked the horrors of their century in the eye from very different angles.

No one galvanises the LSO quite like Tilson Thomas

Last night brought things to a close with Shostakovich’s mighty Fifth Symphony, prefaced in the first half by Copland’s Inscape and Britten’s Cello Symphony. It was a big programme, almost too big to process mentally in one evening, but its challenges were kept on the right side of excess thanks to Tilson Thomas’s carefully calibrated performance.

The LSO have always brought out their best for guest conductors, but no one galvanises them quite like Tilson Thomas. They spring off his incisive beat, throwing down the opening chord of Copland’s Inscape as though the final punch in a long fight. This exploration of serial techniques is something of an anomaly for the composer, but he treats it with such flexibility that it doesn’t remain an anonymous exercise for long. Abstraction gives way to delicately shaded sound-pictures, high string harmonics glow and the LSO’s brass bring all the folksy directness of Copland’s Americana.

Very much a Cello Symphony rather than a Concerto, the Britten that followed saw the best of Ma. There are some musicians that invite you to marvel at them, at their technique and mastery, and there are some that invite you to marvel at the music itself. Ma (pictured right) dissolves into whatever he plays, and that in the best possible way. His is such an natural, unaffected approach that a work like Britten’s rather stern Symphony finds its reserve yielding.

Ma finds the horizontal lyricism among the vertical angularity of the writing, joining the pointillist dots to create a coherent image. The interest is all in the textural details, and Tilson Thomas’s control drew a clarity from the LSO (even after a too-enthusiastic gesture sent his baton flying into the orchestra), allowing each timbral layer to appear cleanly. The simplicity of the Adagio was the true climax, the solo cello line collapsing under each impulse to melody and thrashing out in violent frenzies of pizzicato.

Any performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony brings with it an expectation of the epic, but Tilson Thomas and the LSO thwarted this with an unexpectedly intimate delivery. The opening Moderato was almost conversational, a moan suppressed or whispered to a friend, eventually growing into the fragile plaint of the solo flute (exquisitely played by Adam Walker).

The withholding game continued through the Allegretto and Largo, the latter so slow as to demand every ounce of the LSO’s energy to sustain. But the pay-off was a ferocious dash into the Allegro, the orchestra finally in full spate and the brass allowed to show their might. There were some unusual tempo choices here, particularly towards the end, but the uncertainty in such a familiar work at no point felt forced. Tilson Thomas is never less than dynamic and completely captivating as a conductor, but he isn’t a showman. It’s an approach that works well among so much signature Shostakovich ambiguity, always allowing space for doubt as well as certainty, for subversive as well as affirmative readings.

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