Intriguing Links in Michael Tilson Thomas’s LSO Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Copland, Shostakovich, Britten: Yo-Yo Ma (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). 9.6.2013, Barbican Hall, London (CC)

Copland: Orchestral Variations
Shostakovich:  Cello Concerto No. 1
Copland: Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2)
Britten : The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell)

The programming of this concert was expert. Michael Tilson Thomas boasts connections to all of the featured composers in some way or another, whether it be playing for Shostakovich at the age of fourteen, working under Copland or meeting Britten fleetingly in a restaurant (the night of Tilson Thomas’ debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Of course the Britten links in with the centenary celebrations also; but more fascinating was encountering two sides of Copland.

The Orchestral Variations (1957) is an orchestration of the 1930 Piano Variations. There was no doubting Tilson Thomas’ understanding of the dry, acerbic, angular soundscape of this piece. Even dance rhythms held a daemonic edge. This was an exciting, even at times primal reading.

The more jocular side of Copland, the one almost everybody knows, shone through the Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2, 1934). Helen Wallace’s programme note highlighted the cruel and unaccountable neglect of the piece; Tilson Thomas’ performance seconded the unfairness of the situation in no uncertain terms. The first movement, Copland as father of a certain strain of Americana through and through, was full of life, while Tilson Thomas allowed the central Espressivo just the right amount of depth, not searching for anything that was not there, just letting it speak, eloquently; the incisive finale was a riot. Both Copland pieces showed different sides of the LSO’s virtuosity and it is a tribute to the conductor that they both emerged so effectively.

The Shostakovich First Cello Concerto (the Second follows in this series of concerts on June 11) was given a technically impeccable reading by Yo-Yo Ma and the solo horn player Timothy Jones, who was uncredited, unless you looked him up in the back of the programme. The big surprise was how lightly Ma began the work. Even the later sections where one expects some Rostropovich-style, no-holds-barred hacking away were negotiated most musically. Yet it was all a little too careful; the cello/horn duet passage was perfectly in time, in keeping with the tidiness element. It was also a highlight of the first movement. The plan was surely for maximal contrast: Ma was very expressive in the Moderato that follows – as was Jones – against the huge intensity created by the LSO strings, leading to a cadenza delivered to audience silence. A pity the finale’s manic, macabre dance lost some steam; this was mainly the fault of Tilson Thomas – the orchestra sounded somewhat disengaged.

Finally, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide. Home territory, one might posit, and so it was, with the orchestra revelling in its own virtuosity. There are plenty of opportunities for the brass to shine, and each one was lapped up with relish. The wind played with great character (particularly the tuba-underpinned clarinet variation), while the scampering double-basses achieved preternatural unanimity. The Fugue was the fitting conclusion, wonderfully agile and truly climactic. The audience cheers were richly deserved.


Colin Clarke