It seems only yesterday (but it was probably forty years ago) that Michael Tilson Thomas was being touted as the next Leonard Bernstein. In truth, the two had little in common, apart from East European ancestry and a burning mission to propagate and explain music. It was in a spirit of explanation that MTT gave us a little preparatory talk on Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto. In an era when our cobbled-together government includes a Secretary of State for Culture who seems to have no interest in it, we need such outside help. And music of the Second Viennese School needs it more than most (the inadequate note in the programme will not have enlightened any newcomer).
Like a number of works from this chilly quarter of the compass, Berg’s Chamber Concerto is akin to a very long upbeat, constantly promising something which never quite arrives – although there is a considerable climax in the third and final movement, the piece ends inconclusively, as if Berg had simply had enough. The talents of Gil Shaham and Yefim Bronfman include much that is not required on this particular voyage, but they certainly did their best to present their solos with excellent tone and technique. High-class wind- and brass-playing was provided by a baker’s dozen of LSO members and MTT kept a sure hand on the tiller.
I have appreciated what I have heard of this conductor’s recorded Mahler cycle, and I enjoyed this performance of the First Symphony very much. For one thing, not a hint of vulgarity reared its head all evening. MTT seemed to encourage the purest timbre from everyone, and although there were tiny indications that the players were not entirely used to his conducting style, it was a small price to pay for the feeling of relaxation which ruled the quieter moments. I was not entirely convinced by every tempo change – but then I am not sure that I ever have been, in this symphony.
A short digression on orchestral layout and sound: MTT made at least one concession to a seating pattern which Mahler would have recognised, placing the second violins on the right, with the cellos behind the firsts and the violas behind the seconds – this was the rule with quartets and orchestras until the Czechs started bringing the violas to front-right in the 1890s. The double basses were placed on the left. Mahler would have had them strung along the back of the hall.
The Barbican acoustic does not blend the various choirs very well, so that you never quite get that solid thump in the tuttis
. Despite the importation of some foreign players, the LSO string sound is still ‘neat British’. Having Roman Simovic and Carmine Lauri at the front violin desk ensured that their little duets had great quality; but, although MTT encouraged the strings, especially the firsts, to get stuck in, we were never in Vienna Philharmonic territory. The violas’ interventions in the finale were timely but on the dry side.
The symphony’s opening had its full effect, because of the conductor’s care in balance, and the first movement proceeded very well. The “darkly mysterious passage” (I quote from Stephen Johnson’s programme note) at its centre was most affecting and the movement ended very effectively. The last chord had barely finished when a mobile phone went off. Conductor and players had the grace to laugh, but I would have had the owner thrown out. The scherzo had fine rhythmic pulse in the outer sections – the pesante
quality not overdone – and much lyricism in its trio. We all used to dread the double bass solo at the start of the slow movement, but as played by Joel Quarrington it was as clean as a (rather low) whistle. My personal sense of dread extends to the whole movement; here every one of Mahler’s effects worked well. In the finale MTT got the balance between the extrovert and the introvert just about right, controlling but not micro-managing the orchestra. His only concession to showmanship was to have the superb horn section stand to deliver its 'big tune' towards the end (although this is requested in the score). If Mahler was always played like this, I would be only too happy.
- MTT conducts the LSO in Mozart & Mahler on 3 June