Concluding their concert run in the Barbican, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra presented a programme of works by Copland, Shostakovich and Britten. The musicians' partnership was undoubtedly a successful one, with a completely sold-out Barbican. It turned out to be a mixed evening, with an extremely impressive Shostakovich 5, an at times hugely entertaining Britten, and a somewhat less impressive Copland.
Copland's Inscape is an atmospheric piece with many drawn-out notes and a use of the twelve-tone technique that doesn't lead to complexity. Unfortunately, it is also an unexciting work of music, and the nuances that the orchestra put into their playing is hardly found in the music itself. Especially in comparison to the emotionally laden works in the latter part of the evening, Inscape fell rather flat. This is not the fault of the London Symphony Orchestra or Michael Tilson Thomas, who I felt got everything out of the music that was in there, and played with dedication. Yet I while listening I searched in vain for any subtlety or relief.
There are few musical friendships that we should be as grateful for as that between Mstislav Rostropovich (and his wife Galina Vishnevksaya) and Benjamin Britten. Their friendship yielded many an amazing piece of music, and 1963's Cello Symphony is one of the most impressive. Consisting of four movements, it has at its heart an adagio that is followed by a cadenza which asks the soloist to at times disregard the bow and strum and pluck their instrument instead. The final movement begins with a memorable trumpet solo, perhaps the most captivating moment of the piece, leading to a wonderful finale.
The LSO and Yo-Yo Ma's performance was not unequivocally convincing, but there were some extraordinary moments in the music. The first movement lacked some of the desolateness that I would say belongs to the piece (though Tilson Thomas certainly got off to an exciting start, accidentally throwing his baton in the air a few minutes into the piece), but the second movement was energetic and contained some fabulous playing from the woodwinds. The third movement was at times stunning, and the entire concert hall was deadly silent when Ma played the cadenza (not even a cough!), so mesmerized were we all.
Ma's playing was beautiful but it lacked some of the despair and aggression Rostropovich put into the piece. His projection was sometimes faltering, but the orchestra and Tilson Thomas never overpowered him. It was an effective partnership, and the performance made it clear why the piece is a cello symphony and not a concerto. Michael Tilson Thomas ensured the balance between soloist and orchestra remained throughout.
Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5 is often performed and a staple of many orchestras' repertoires. Most of them can churn out a decent or even good performance, but its popularity makes it all the more difficult to deliver a truly outstanding interpretation. But the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas managed to achieve precisely this. It was a performance without egos and without any unnecessarily flourishes. It was simple and thereby hugely affective.
The LSO once again showed off their considerable skill, with some particularly impressive solos by the flute and oboe, but the cellos and double basses were the stars of the symphony (insofar as a performance with no egos can have any stars). The third movement (Largo) was the most intense, with a constantly building tension, and again a fantastic balance in the orchestra. This movement felt like the heart not only of the symphony but of the entire evening. The fourth movement brought us all back down to earth through the dizzying dances and marches Shostakovich is so famous for. The raucous applause after the finale showed the huge appreciation of the audience for this interpretation of the Shostakovich symphony. I do not think I will hear a better version in quite a long time.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS