Last Works – LSO/MTT (16 November)

Cello Concerto No.2 in G, Op.126
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

Lynn Harrell (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert formed part of the Last Works series that Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO have been presenting at the Barbican this month. Some of the programming has been distinctly approximate as regards chronology, but this Shostakovich coupling worked well – in that the works come at the beginning and centre of his ’final period’ (pace the programme note, the 1964 cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin is actually the composer’s last major public statement) and have much in common stylistically, as well as fulfilling the requirements of an orthodox concert layout.

Only in recent years has the Second Cello Concerto (1966) emerged from the shadow of its more extrovert predecessor. Interestingly, it began life as Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, and a symphonic coherence is evident behind the music’s reticent, even fugitive expression. The opening ’Largo’ is essentially an accompanied monologue – and Lynn Harrell’s tackling of the solo part, while alive to its musing seriousness, failed to intensify either tonally or expressively as the music heads towards an animated middle section and a brutal confrontation between cello and bass drum. Harrell’s triple-stopping in the closing stages sounded distinctly queasy too.

With Tilson Thomas pointing its strutting motion to a tee, the brief central ’Allegretto’ had the right satiric bite – with, as throughout the evening, the LSO percussion on scintillating form. Swinging unpredictably and uneasily between wistful melancholy and whimsical humour, the final movement is among Shostakovich’s most elusive creations. Launched on a vivid brass and percussion fanfare – surely the horns don’t have to be so slack rhythmically to convey the portentousness intended? – Harrell seemed unsure of the movement’s overall demeanour, missing many of the ironic nuances in the repetition of plain-spun material. The climax was neither desperate nor defiant enough, while the cello’s pay-off was more an apologetic shrug than a bitter ’two-fingered’ salute.

This is music bristling with frustration and exasperation, of a kind Harrell’s well-meant sincerity went only some of the way towards realising. His encore, a mellifluous transcription of Chopin’s E flat Nocturne, was seemingly intended as a ’way things were’ afterthought – but came across merely as a bland consolidation of its performer’s persona.

It was a not dissimilar story with the Fifteenth Symphony (1971) – the last, most intriguing and, as time passes, quite likely the deepest of Shostakovich’s cycle. Not that these latter qualities were much in evidence in Tilson Thomas’s clinical but neutral rendering of the opening ’Allegretto’: neither maniacally intense as with Kyril Kondrashin, nor with the measured ominous feel of Kurt Sanderling, and with Rossini, Mahler et al passing through the aural landscape as though on their way to a window display at Macy’s.

The second movement was more focused and absorbing. Moray Welsh summoned the same yearning intensity from the cello soliloquies as he had in Mikhail Pletnev’s memorable performance some years ago, while the trombone’s funereal prophecies were drawn into a climax imploring and impotent. The vibraphone-led passage just before the close was magically inward, while Tilson Thomas maintained momentum through a ’Scherzo’ less capricious and more confrontational than is often the case.

The ’Finale’ is Shostakovich at his most teasingly equivocal. A pity that the Wagner allusions which power the movement’s harmonic motion were so matter-of-fact, with the dance music which follows limpidly phrased but emotionally inert. Come the inexorable build-up of the central passacaglia, Tilson Thomas’s sudden broadening at the climax spoke of applied rhetoric rather than felt conviction – losing any underlying flow as the coda is reached. With its percussion ostinati passively unfolding against a bare string chord, this concluded the symphony in blandly unaware fashion.

The degree to which this music embodies experiences unavailable to those of us outside of the historical time-frame is a vexed and oft-debated question. But musical expression can be said to intensify as its inspirations recede beyond memory, becoming a shared experience that sustains itself and its listeners over time. In this respect, Tilson Thomas is right to assert that pieces such as these can change your life. Yet for them to do that, there needs to be a far greater awareness of expressive aspirations as opposed to emotional constraints. Last works, unending creativity.

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