Last Works – LSO/MTT (3 November)

Symphony No.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 3 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Michael Tilson Thomas can be a frustratingly uneven conductor. He is often outstandingly effective at negotiating complex rhythmic and contemporary scores, whilst his advocacy of composers from his native America – Bernstein, Copland and Ives to name but three – is exemplary.

In more standard repertoire, the results can be mixed, but on thisoccasion he demonstrated what seemed to me to be a new gravitas and maturity as a Mahler conductor, for this was a profoundly moving and indeed disturbing interpretation, with penetrating insights into the music, and the orchestra responded with committed and passionate playing. This was in stark contrast to the LSO’s performance of the same work back in June under the then moribund direction of Lorin Maazel.

Tilson Thomas literally coaxed and caressed the music into life. The opening string paragraph was immediately wistful and full of heartfelt nostalgia, yet in no way was this ’heart on sleeve’. As tension built, Tilson Thomas ensured that the important counter-melodies on cellos and violas were duly audible, thus heightening one’s awareness of Mahler’s contrapuntal writing, which he was exploring in his later works. The first big climax was well prepared for and the brass section shone brilliantly – as they did consistently, without any stridency of tone. The all-important – nay, vital – contributions from the first trumpet were superbly and flawlessly executed. It is often the case that this first movement can sprawl somewhat, but Tilson Thomas was careful to lead organically from one section to another. The most delicate chamber-like scoring gave way inevitably to terrifying, almost brutal climaxes. This was not so much a ’farewell to life’, as this symphony has often been thought to depict, but dealing with life’s crises and then moving on. In some ways, it was the quieter moments that were the most discomforting – there was little repose or consolation in this interpretation.

There was one particular passage that was absolutely chilling – it comes just after halfway through the movement when the music seems to be disintegrating to nothingness – the string sextuplets sound as if they to want to start the movement again, and then there is a pause. Tilson Thomas prolonged this, and when themusic picks up again, it is marked ’shadow-like’. It certainly was, and the effect was quite unearthly.

In the second movement, it is important that the three distinct tempi should be contrasted and have distinctive characteristics – this was certainly the case. Cheeky bassoons and pert clarinets gave way to galumphing strings, which really sank into their heavily accented notes with the appropriate ländler-like gait. Tempo II was not overly fast, and there was a real dancing quality, with the full orchestra light on its feet. The more sentimental slow ländler of the third tempo never sank into soupy sentimentality, although Tilson Thomas cajoled some lovely silky sounds from the strings. The return to the perky opening music at the end of the movement was strangely unsettling.

The marking for the burlesque third movement is ’Allegro assai’ and ’trozig’ – defiant. This direction was strictly observed and prevented the music from degenerating into frenetic disarray. Once again, the lucidity of Mahler’s carefully calculated orchestration could be appreciated, with themes and phrases tossed between the sections of the orchestra with clarity and precision. When the final presto took flight, Tilson Thomas unleashed a veritable torrent of tempestuous sound. But it was in an earlier, calmer passage that the cogency of the whole reading became obvious. Each of the movements is derived, to a greater or lesser extent, from the very opening of the symphony. Echoes of phrases and fragments of themes permeate the score but they are not always made evident. Tilson Thomas made sure we were mindful of them, without exaggerating or underlining the point.

And so to the great finale where the strings’ hymn-like opening was so movingly played, with full tone (as indicated) and warmly expressive. The contrasting passages with contra-bassoon pitted against high violins and other ’oddities’ of scoring reminded that Schoenberg was soon to be one of Mahler’s Austrian successors. Herbert von Karajan once pointed out that there is only one main climax in a work – a possibly questionable assertion in some instances – but the climax of this fourth movement was absolutely shattering, as if the previous movements had indeed been building towards this one moment. As the music sank slowly into oblivion, and the ghostly strings groped their way through that final remarkable page, one really did feel, as Alban Berg did, that this symphony is “permeated with premonitions of death”.

This concert was the first in the series entitled “Last Works”, and ifthe remaining performances are on this high level of musical integrity, we will have cause to be grateful to Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO. My only regret was that “LSO Live” did not capture the performance. Yet, if Tilson Thomas’s Mahler 9 in his on-going CD cycle with the San Francisco Symphony is on this plane, then I will be eager to acquire it as a matter of urgency.

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