The LSO’s three-concert Mahler-centric mini-series with Michael Tilson Thomas, its former Principal Conductor now Principal Guest, started with a change of soloist, in which Yefim Bronfman was replaced by Llŷr Williams.
Beethoven is home turf for Williams, but he was also very territorial in the way he asserted the soloist’s sovereign status. The Third Piano Concerto undeniably thrives on this sort of dynamic, but you sense that Williams’s approach wouldn’t be that different in the earlier concertos. There’s a telling bit of body language that happened a couple of times, in which, after a particularly eloquent passage, he’d sort of hug himself, and which sent out exclusion messages loud and clear. He’s a fine player, with an astonishingly acute ear and a technique that brooks almost no opposition (there was a bit of a blur in the cadenza), and in general his performance was unequivocally romantic. Yet there are possibilities and degrees of rapport with the orchestra that, for all the precision of ensemble, rather passed Williams by. What used to be sent up as ‘creative tension’ was sparingly celebrated. Williams did bring out the exploratory aspect of Beethoven’s piano-writing very successfully, although it was a pity that he’s still stuck on the tic of bringing out an interesting snippet of voice-leading that then, in music charged with connections, isn’t followed through.
The opening of the first movement couldn’t help playing to Williams’s strengths, but the development section was oddly neutral and goalless. He was mesmerising at the start of the Largo, even more so in the rippling accompaniment to a dreamy passage for woodwinds, but he then sabotaged the mood with some prosaically under-characterised rising staccato scales. It’s great when a performer is so completely folded up in a composer, as Williams obviously is with Beethoven, but he ran the risk of being too much in thrall to the self-conscious beauties of his playing. Tilson Thomas and the LSO were, rather more I imagine than suited them, cast as treasured colleagues than first among equals.
It was a completely different story for the masterly and moving performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. In the same way that Hänsel und Gretel is really an opera for grown-ups, so Mahler 4 is a symphony that shines a light back onto childhood. Apart from revelling, especially in the first movement, in its grotesqueries, exaggerations and phantoms, MTT also folded in that extra dimension of innocence that may be lost but which still clamours to be made sense of. There’s the moment, after the climactic dissonance, when the familiar tunes reappear, solid, self-conscious, grounded and adult, that was realised with a perception and, for want of a better word, truth that was hair-raising, the more so since it was so surprising and unaffected. Once you got Tilson Thomas’s axis of revelation, the performance went from strength to strength, spreading connections like wild fire. The slow movement slipped beyond the dark forest of experience into a ravishingly played, typically Mahlerian parallel realm of life as it should be, transfigured and delivered back to reality with masterly assurance. Elizabeth Watts complemented Tilson Thomas’s subtlety with her own strongly imagined, characterfully sung child’s-eye view of Heaven.
- MTT conducts the LSO in Berg & Mahler (31 May) and Mozart & Mahler (3 June)