Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz is among the increasing number of shorter orchestral works that still seem to be popular but are not very often performed these days. To hear the piece played by a top-class ensemble and a virtuoso conductor was something of a revelation, for the composer’s clear, skilful and highly imaginative use of orchestral colour and timbre came across vividly.
Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto also deserves more than the occasional outings it gets, for although completed when the composer was only 21 years old, it is already a mature and characteristic work: the sound of the heavy chords in the orchestra that begin the work, described by the composer as “a blow on the head” could only have been conceived by him. The work is quite short and is played without a break, but it is in the three-movement – fast/slow/fast – form. It really demands little of the pianist other than pert dexterity in the outer movements and a certain amount of expression, slightly tongue in cheek perhaps, in the middle one. These requirements were effectively delivered by Simon Trpčeski, who also, as is his wont as a keen supporter of his native Macedonia’s cultural heritage, played one of his country’s traditional dances as an encore.
Even though Michael Tilson Thomas is in the forefront of today’s conducting ranks, I wonder if he is as highly regarded now as he should be. Perhaps he has never quite escaped from the fate of trailing in Leonard Bernstein’s wake as another brilliant American conductor/pianist who also composes; and his continuing eighteen-year tenure at the head of the San Francisco Symphony, an excellent orchestra, but maybe not one of the ‘big’ American ensembles, has probably given him less prestige than he deserves.
These thoughts came to mind during Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Although MTT’s gestures can become balletic at climatic points, his stick technique is always absolutely clear, his beat totally secure. In his direction he seems to give his musicians plenty of room to respond, and they reward him with vital, precise playing. It was striking that in the Symphony MTT was able to shape the music naturally and expressively: he steered a middle course between a straight, objective approach and the distorting over-interpretations of some conductors. The slow movement, graced by an eloquent horn solo, had an abundance of atmosphere, and the third-movement waltz was given a touchingly elegant beauty. The finale was strongly delivered and exhilarating. I cannot think of anybody who could have surpassed the performance that Michael Tilson Thomas gave us.