Affection and warmth from Tilson Thomas and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tilson Thomas, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Nicola Benedetti (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), 14.11.2019. (CS)

Nicola Benedetti (c) Simon Fowler

Tilson Thomas Agnegram (1998)
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D Op.35
Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in Bb Op.100

One can forgive Michael Tilson Thomas for programming one of his own works as a curtain-raiser to the Russian ‘war horses’ that followed in this LSO concert at the Barbican Hall, even if it was a rather frothy amuse bouche given the musical company it was keeping.

Since he won the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1969, Tilson Thomas has been at the forefront of international music-making – as a conductor and curator, composer and educator, in the concert hall and on the television screen.  The films that he made for the BBC during his tenure as Principal Conductor of the LSO from 1988 to 1995 formed part of my own musical education.  In 1995 he became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and Agnegram was written in 1998 to celebrate the 90th birthday of the San Francisco music patron Agnes Albert.

Agnegram is, at its title infers, an affectionate musical play on letters from Albert’s name: a piquant cocktail of musical quotations which opens with a Bernstein-like whoop, waltzes through some Wagner and offers some Irish folksy lullabies to bring down the temperature.  The LSO seemed well-rehearsed and their playing was taut and theatrical.  But, its carnivalesque tenor seemed out of keeping with what followed.

That said, things didn’t feel quite ‘right’ to me at the start of Nicola Benedetti’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.  Benedetti played this concerto at this year’s Proms, with the National Youth Orchestra, a performance which was widely lauded and which prompted my fellow Seen & Heard reviewer, Alan Sanders to admire the violinist’s ‘attractive warmth of phrase and tone’ and ‘dedicated, inward quality’.

On this occasion I found that ‘warmth’ missing, at least initially.  The LSO are consummate performers and assured technicians, but while all the notes were in ‘the right place’ I didn’t sense that inevitable tightening of the musical rope as the soloist’s first entrance approaches.  If anything, it felt a bit ‘workaday’.  Then, while Benedetti dug in deep on the lower strings, the higher flights were somewhat lacking in rounded projection.  Her demeanour was intense, but it seemed an intensity of a slightly anxious, rather than impassioned, nature.  I was waiting for the solo line to really sing and project, but while Benedetti adopted her customary pose, leaning into her instrument as is her wont, and staring intently at an imagined spot on the Barbican platform floor, her fixated concentration was not tempered by the physical and emotion freedom, the ‘openness’ of a great communicator, such as I have enjoyed during her performances on previous occasions.

Things didn’t really begin to sound convincing until the soloist’s cadenza, when Benedetti at last settled into an expressive groove, allying virtuosity with fluency, her instrument finding its full, gutsy ‘voice’.  And, in the Canzonetta she achieved just the right balance of lyricism and introspection – perhaps one day we might be treated to a soloist who dares to play the movement con sordini, as Tchaikovsky asked? – complemented by some lovely playing from clarinets, bassoons and horns.  Did the Allegro vivacissimo have to be quite so breakneck, though?  The final movement kicked off at quite a lick, but Benedetti pushed it even harder with her first entry and from then on Tilson Thomas and the LSO had to keep on their toes to stay with the pace – something they did not consistently achieve.  The poco meno mosso sections didn’t really lilt with a carefree suavity and when Benedetti then launched back into the tempo primo, she was in danger of leaving a dust trail in her wake: Tilson Thomas was watching her like a hawk, but somehow things went a-kilter: while the strings and woodwinds, with the soloist buried in their midst, could just about scamper to catch up, the horns languished behind the soloist, twice, and it felt unnecessarily messy.  Benedetti’s technique is undoubtedly up to such velocity-challenges; I’m not sure that Tchaikovsky’s music benefited all that much.

After the interval, Tilson Thomas led the LSO in an accomplished and, eventually, stirring performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.  At times I felt there was a distance between conductor and orchestra: Tilson Thomas’s left-hand undulations, often directed at the woodwind, or his left-to-right baton side-sweeps with knees bent low seemed to have little to do with what the LSO were actually playing – thought I may be judging too harshly, for there was an evident affection and warmth in this interpretation and its rendition, even if the symphony didn’t quite make the theatrical mark that one might expect or etch its more gentle expressive gestures memorably.

One thing, thankfully, that the performance was not, was ponderous.  I may have missed some of the terror and trepidation in the first movement, but in their place were fluency and forward-momentum, even in the closing episodes of the Andante where the sheer mass of sound can make it feel like grinding through a mountain of impenetrable granite: here, we had heroic grandeur and uplift.

As one has come to expect, the LSO strings were fleet of foot – a perfectly co-ordinated army – in an Allegro marcato both mischievous and menacing, and it was a joy to watch leader Roman Simovic physically feel and show the pulse, pulls and tugs of the rhythmic fireworks.  The impish deftness with which themes and fragments were tossed from section to section was noteworthy.  And, by the third movement Adagio I was won over.  Was there elegiac tragedy?  Perhaps not, but there were passages of beguiling pathos and beauty.  Again, the LSO strings’ tone and ensemble contributed much, though I’d have liked to have been invited ‘inside’ the music by more truly pianissimo playing.  In the Allegro giocoso the percussion had great fun – especially the side-drum player! – and Tilson Thomas relished the high spirits.

By the close, I wasn’t sure whether Tilson Thomas sees this symphony as a Romantic or a Modernist work.  Of course, it can be, and is, both, but I felt that the conductor needed to assert his vision more definitively.  Tilson Thomas took it all in his stride, but perhaps a conductor of this mighty symphony needs to show the struggles along the way?  I’d have liked the brass section to be either more strident or more stentorian: as in the Tchaikovsky, there were impressive moments, but a lack of fire at times.  The woodwind, too, might have been more zesty.  That said, there was much that was refreshingly free of mannerism and manipulation.

Perhaps my misgivings about some aspects of this performance are uncharitable.  Tilson Thomas is currently Conductor Laureate of the LSO and, following cardiac surgery earlier this year which necessitated a little time out, he will assume the role of Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony in June 2020 when he concludes his 25-year directorship of the orchestra.  Given the fly-by-night nature of modern cultural life, we should be grateful for the sort of longevity, influence and commitment such as Michael Tilson Thomas has consistently displayed during the last fifty years.

Claire Seymour

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