The LSO Celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas at Seventy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Shostakovich, Sibelius. Yuja Wang (piano), Philip Cobb (trumpet), London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.3.2015 (RB)

Shostakovich – Concerto No. 1 for Piano Trumpet and Strings Op 35
Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op 43
Britten – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op 33a

This was the second of two LSO concerts to mark the 70th birthday of the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. It featured three masterworks from the first half of the 20th Century including Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano Trumpet and Strings where the LSO’s strings and Principal Trumpet, Philip Cobb, were joined by the brilliant young Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang.

The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes have a programmatic function within the opera. When Britten decided to arrange them into a concert suite he underlined the point by giving each of them a descriptive title. In Dawn I loved the long sustained phrases which MTT coaxed from the LSO’s strings and flutes and the way in which the clarinets, harp and violas evoked the movement of the tide over the beach. The brass have to portray both the vastness and majesty of the sea but also the sense of danger and I would have liked the LSO to make more of the dangers which lurk beneath the waves. Tilson Thomas and the LSO did a wonderful job evoking the sparkle and gleam of sunlight on the waves in the second Interlude and I enjoyed the rich colours and subtle tone painting produced by the LSO’s woodwind and strings. There was some highly expressive phrasing from the lower strings in Moonlight capturing perfectly the atmosphere of the nocturnal scene and gorgeous tone painting from the flutes and harp depicting the shafts of moonlight on the waves. The final Storm interlude was absolutely ferocious and I loved the way MTT and the orchestra brought out the dissonances in the inner textures while capturing the sweep and surge of the storm.

Yuja Wang is a very glamorous figure and she made quite an entrance when she walked on to the stage to play the Shostakovich concerto. She was wearing a dazzling light blue designer dress and sparkling silver platform stiletto heels – how she managed to use the piano’s pedals wearing those shoes is quite beyond me but she didn’t seem to have much problem on that score. Wang and the LSO’s strings took the opening movement at quite a pace – I think there are strong arguments for doing this as the composer himself played this concerto very fast although there were a few passages which were a little rushed. Wang’s articulation was superb and she played the composer’s whirling toccata figurations with enormous energy and virtuosity while also making the most of the playful and satirical elements in the score. Cobb stood at the back of the orchestra and he seemed to pitch his entries perfectly providing sardonic asides on the warring protagonists while MTT and LSO engaged in some roguish and witty dialogue with Wang. Tilson Thomas adopted a nice flowing tempo for the Lento second movement and Wang first gave us some intensely lyrical and poetic playing and followed this up with powerful octaves. The highlight of the movement was Cobb’s soft-grained muted trumpet solo at the end which was pitch-perfect, warm and richly expressive. Wang captured the searching and improvisatory quality of the third movement to perfection before launching into the high jinks of the Rossini-meets-Mickey Mouse finale. Wang’s technical prowess at the piano is second to none and she gave an absolutely unbridled and incendiary piece of playing here, very much in the Argerich mould. Cobb also came much more to the fore giving us exhilarating trumpet fanfares and an exciting cadenza. Wang’s rendition of the piano cadenza was a blistering tour de force before she and Cobb sparred with each other to bring the fun-filled coda to a conclusion. As an encore Wang performed a jazz-inspired piece which MTT had written for her, evoking a meeting in a nightclub and mischievously entitled, Do you Come Here Often?

The final work on the programme was Sibelius’ Second Symphony which has often been connected with Finland’s struggle for independence. The composer remained silent about these associations although he did indicate that he created his initial sketches for the symphony with the Don Juan legend and Dante’s Divine Comedy more in mind. The LSO have recorded all the Sibelius symphonies with Sir Colin Davis so they have in-depth knowledge of these works. MTT’s reading of the Second Symphony came across as very personal and emotional, particularly in the anguished second movement. He captured the cool Nordic atmosphere that is so typical of Sibelius in the first movement and he clearly had an eye to detail and the formal classical structure. However, there were also moments of charged emotion and high drama – at these points Tilson Thomas became very animated on the podium (at one point he seemed to leap forward). The Andante second movement is really the heart of this work and I was gripped from the opening pizzicatos on the lower strings and the plaintive melody in the woodwind. The tempi, mood and dynamics seemed to fluctuate quite widely in this performance although that is fair enough as the composer does litter the score with numerous instructions. There seemed to be an ebb and flow of emotion throughout the movement with conductor and orchestra using a rich palette of tone colours to create some stirring and highly charged music. As the movement unfolded, MTT also seemed to have an eye on the motivic relationships and succeeded in achieving an overarching sense of structural cohesion. The scherzo opened to a flurry of shadowy activity in the strings which built in energy and intensity before the serene calm of the trio section. In the finale the heroic splendour of the music was captured to perfection – the clean air, pine forests and bright lights of Finland seemed to pervade this performance.

Overall, this was a great concert with excellent performances all round and a fitting tribute to the Maestro on his birthday.

Robert Beattie

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