MTT and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony – both born in 1944 – join together with the LA Phil

United StatesUnited States Fauré, Tilson Thomas, Prokofiev: Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone), Los Angeles Philharmonic / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, 9.1.2022. (LV)

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Fauré – Pavane in F-sharp minor, Op.50

Tilson ThomasMeditations on Rilke, Op.35

Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in B-flat major, Op.100

Less than a month after Michael Tilson Thomas was born in Los Angeles in December 1944, Sergei Prokofiev conducted the premiere in Moscow of his Fifth Symphony, written while WWII was still raging and intended as ‘a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit’. Tilson Thomas and Prokofiev’s symphony returned to LA where both have been frequent visitors over the years and, when they played together over the weekend, nobility was paramount even if it did not entirely suppress the rage. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s distinguished playing was crisp and athletic with notably clean textures, and the sound was bright and clear.

The Andante started with such startling equanimity of thought that the narrative took shape instantly and with affection, and the striding tune had a celebratory splendor. The Allegro marcato was more mellow, less acerbic, the clarinet solo gurgled delightfully, and Tilson Thomas took a jigsaw-puzzle solver’s delight in putting together the parts with intricate precision and a rather light touch. The Adagio was sober, the persistent underlying Eroica triplets driving its internal logic and giving the movement an ominous cast. The Allegro giocoso would have sounded long, as it often does, if the LA Phil, which performed the Fifth Symphony first in 1947, had not played so well.

In Tilson Thomas’s Meditations on Rilke, inspired by six separate, highly evocative poems in which an artist, wandering alone as autumn leaves drift, looks back on life, the composer has created a lyrical-mystical blend of music and song from messages and images in the poetry. Both Sasha Cooke, who sang in the premiere in San Francisco exactly two years ago, and Dashon Burton performed with such focused intensity that Rilke’s poetry came alive more than just as visual imagery but in the beauty of each individual word.

There were miracles everywhere. A cello duet radiating out through the lower strings to horns and trumpets preceded Cooke’s exquisitely Mahleresque entrance in ‘Immer wieder’, a sad cowboy love song in a Winterreise universe. Burton let loose his inner bass-baritone rage in ‘Das Lied des Trinkers’. A bracing gallop of triplets à la Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony in ‘Imaginärer Lebenslauf’ heralded a catastrophe before calm evolved out of autumnal solitude accompanied by evocative trilling in the flutes.

The concert began with a performance of Fauré’s Pavane suffused with gentle light, the silky playing of the violins and violas shimmering over a reduced number of cellos and double basses.

Laurence Vittes

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