LSO – Michael Tilson Thomas conducts John Cage & Bartók, Julia Fischer plays Beethoven

John Cage
The Seasons
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Concerto for Orchestra

Julia Fischer (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 30 May, 2019
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Julia FischerPhotograph:

Lightning seldom strikes twice but on this occasion it did. Both Julia Fischer’s account of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the LSO’s quite superlative account Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra were streets ahead of any of the many live performances one has heard.

For much of the first movement the Beethoven was simply extremely good, Julia Fischer’s experience as a chamber musician paying rich dividends in her interplay with a slimmed-down LSO and Michael Tilson Thomas’s ability to balance orchestra and soloist – without sacrificing orchestral weight – much in evidence, so that Fischer was at once a soloist but also very much primus inter pares. However the true magic started with the becalmed episode at the first movement’s heart which took us into a different realm so that by the time of Kreisler’s cadenza the whole thing had taken wing to the extent that at its close there was a collective intake of breath and a heartfelt round of applause, far from the usual half-hearted manifestations by audiences who habitually claps anything and everything.

The exploratory slow movement was breathtaking – there is one bar where most unusually Beethoven indicates a double pause in the score and never in my experience has this been realised to such effect – whilst Fischer’s tone in the stratospheric reaches above the stave never faltered and she played with a kind of unaffected freedom and flexibility permitted to very few. The Finale had a joyously unaffected lilt and, as with the slow movement, the bassoon of Daniel Jemison was outstanding. By way of an encore Fischer played the second of Paganini’s Opus One Caprices (B-minor) with immaculate control.

Michael Tilson ThomasPhotograph: New World Symphony

In its very different way Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was at least as remarkable – a glittering tour de force – every LSO section shining. Fresh from its tour of South America with Simon Rattle, this was very definitely an orchestra with its tail up. Composed for the Boston Symphony in response to a commission from Koussevitzky, this is music which taxes orchestras. For example, the second movement, the game of couples, has the various woodwinds paired at awkward intervals, the bassoons in minor-sixths and muted trumpets in discordant major-seconds, whilst taken as a whole the Concerto could be described as the orchestral equivalent of a particularly challenging series of piano Etudes such as those of Ligeti. The LSO passed with flying colours from the trenchant strings at the opening and in the ‘Elegy’, the sophisticated woodwinds throughout or the pungent brass whether in the Intermezzo’s precisely weighted chorale or the electrifying build up to the Finale’s close which came like an elemental hurricane blowing across the Hungarian Puszta. MTT paced the whole with the unobtrusive confidence of long experience.

To open, John Cage’s The Seasons – “ballet with music”, 1947, choreography by Merce Cunningham – accessible and beautifully orchestrated music commissioned by the Ballet Society, predecessor to the New York City Ballet. It was delivered with finesse and where necessary with a sense of eruptive power held in reserve.

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