As he approaches 70, Michael Tilson Thomas is in danger of becoming one of the grand old men of music. He first conducted the LSO over 40 years ago and was its chief for seven memorable years from 1988 to 1995. While his slender silhouette remains enviably unchanged, his brilliance and assurance have mellowed and filled out into exceptional music-making. The LSO clearly relishes working with him, and that hit of connection communicated itself just as instantly with the packed Barbican Hall audience in this the second of the MTT/LSO/Yo-Yo Ma three Britten-centenary concerts, yoking him together with Shostakovich and Copland, all of them major composers who reacted to the sheer bafflement of the last century with singular acuity.
In Aaron Copland’s Quiet City – as distinctive of urban American dislocation and introspection as an Edward Hopper painting – Tilson Thomas released its gentle unease by stealth. The work started out as music for a play by Irwin Shaw, about two brothers, one who pragmatically submerged his creativity, the other who did not, the two represented by trumpet and cor anglais. The soloists dreamed their way into the piece's muted tension with rare eloquence, Philip Cobb’s trumpet hovering between the concert-hall and the nightclub, Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais a heartbreaker on a par with Tristan or The Swan of Tuonela. Tilson Thomas shaped the LSO strings to support such dialogue with shifting layers of transparent sound, unfolding Copland’s nocturne of anxiety with lucid, unhurried insistence.
A more complex brand of anxiety was powerfully at work in Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, matched by an eviscerating performance from Yo-Yo Ma. He understood with disarming clarity that the solo part is more an extension of the orchestra than one showy voice against the rest; and it was obvious from the cello’s opening threnody that Yo-Yo Ma had the breadth of imagination and personality to do justice to Shostakovich’s secretive intimacy and awareness of his mortality. Yo-Yo Ma became the expression of someone who has seen and experienced too much and who can only react obliquely – saying one thing (as in the banal song that threads through the work) but meaning another. The cellist had more than enough swagger where it was needed, and the lyrical surge in the finale brought some sort of comfort, but he never let you forget the disquiet working away beneath the surface. Tilson Thomas shaped a powerfully cohesive performance. The devil was in the detail, with playing of great finesse, and in the closing pages, much in the same vein as the end of Symphony 15, he was in total command of music flat-lining to a close at the same time as asserting that the parade goes on, willy-nilly – a case of Shostakovich giving with one hand and taking with another. Both MTT and Yo-Yo Ma were completely in thrall to this claustrophobic, difficult work, teasing out its complexities and possibilities with eerie precision.
Britten’s only ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, is inevitably overshadowed by his operas, but it’s a wonderful score. He wrote it in 1956, and first choreographed by John Cranko the following year. This 45-minute suite was arranged by the Britten biographer Donald Mitchell and Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke in 1997. Its brand of fantasy – a handsome prince, two princesses, one good, the other not, and a fabulous pagoda palace – is very Russian in style, but the dominant flavour of the music is oriental, with Britten recreating with his usual uncanny brilliance the sound of the Balinese gamelan for a blend of piano, celesta, pitched percussion, drums and gongs. It anticipates his operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the sparer Curlew River, but sustains a captivating, glossy grandeur unique in his output. ‘The Adventures of Belle Rose’ (the good princess) is an exceptional feat of aural imagination, and its turning a corner into a full-blown, romantic pas de deux
is surely the most purely erotic music Britten ever wrote. Michael Tilson Thomas steered a sure course through its prodigal melodiousness and complicated plot, and the LSO players were up for every virtuoso trick the composer could throw at them.