LSO/Michael Tilson Thomas – Mahler 5 – Gil Shaham plays Mozart

Guildhall Artists at the Barbican
Sonatas for Piano and Violin – in C, K303; in E minor, K304; in E flat, K380
Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula (piano) & Bartosz Woroch (violin)

LSO/Tilson Thomas
Violin Concerto in A, K219
Symphony No.5

Gil Shaham (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 June, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The plan was simple: arrive at the Barbican Centre by 6. It should have been easily achievable even on a rainy and royal day: just leave early enough. I did. But South Eastern Railways had other ideas: no trains, no staff, no information – woefully inadequate and wholly unacceptable. Transport eventually turned up (the timetable irrelevant) and I arrived at 6.30, just in time for the last of the Mozart sonatas offered by two students at the Guildhall School in their pre-concert recital. The programme handout erroneously described these works as being for violin and piano: t’other way round. K380 proved the point. The piano is the leading light and has the more interesting material. Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula played crisply, stylishly and dynamically; a constant pleasure. Bartosz Woroch’s tone was somewhat astringent and a little whiny in the ‘wrong’ if ‘right’ notes of the here-flowing slow movement; he emphasised unduly their wrongness. Balance was good though; Woroch didn’t try to dominate (and sometimes the violin accompanies) while Abdelmoula was assertive in a discriminating and musical way. Maybe three Mozart sonatas (one for me, of course) was ‘two’ much of a good thing. The vibrancy of this partnership suggested that a Brahms sonata would have been interesting. I hope to hear this duo again.

Some works follow one around; others can be rested. The Mozart violin concerto opening the LSO’s evening had memorably featured in Pinchas Zukerman’s recent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert given on the other side of the Thames. As for Mahler 5, quite simply I have avoided this overplayed work (not easy to do!) because it palls easily: the more you hear it, the less it gives back, partly due to routine and overblown performances.

Gil Shaham. Photograph: Christian SteinerZukerman’s K219 had been fresh, elegant and searching, quite romantic. With the LSO Gil Shaham brought flashy brilliance and wiry sound to it. Whereas Zukerman also directed, gathering the RPO around him for some collegiate music-making, Shaham had Michael Tilson Thomas conducting a similar-sized (reduced) LSO playing smartly; no choice, the consistently nifty tempos demanded it. The outer movements zipped by, Shaham not always on top of the swift speeds (snatching at notes already too short, the finale lacking its dance-like quality, its ‘Turkish’ episode lost in the rush) and sometimes appearing glib. The slow movement, given within limited expressive parameters, failed to engage emotionally. Although the performers were devotedly ‘as one’, the fly-by, classically-lean conception undersold the music’s possibilities. The not-credited cadenzas, although not particularly interesting, found Shaham at his most poised and meaningful.

The Mahler, however, was deeply involving, a performance at-once engrossing and illuminating. From Philip Cobb’s fearless (from the barracks but agreeably tapered) trumpet solo to the exhilarating final bars, aside from one misplaced triangle ping (!), this was the LSO on jaw-dropping form, its familiarity with this score never contemptuous and always meticulous to the many demands made by Michael Tilson Thomas at the service of the music.

Michael Tilson ThomasConducting from memory (he had the score but closed it on arrival), MTT’s long-experience with this work was enshrined in every bar. There may have been many ‘personal’ flexibilities and emphases, but the music’s direction was never compromised, each of the five movements seen whole, each placed unerringly as a pertinent ingredient of a three-part darkness-to-light journey.

Following a first movement immediately macabre, doom-laden, militaristic and furious (every note loaded with significance), MTT went straight into the stormy second – another view of the same coin – not hasty but weighty with many an expressive Rückblick, the cellists in their soliloquy finding the music’s soul, MTT introducing the to-be-triumphant brass chorale without undue ceremony; it will, after all, return.

The symphony’s second part (third movement) is a large-scale scherzo. MTT gave it time to lilt, to catch its coffee-house and ironic diversions. Throughout, a variety of accents, attacks and dynamics beguiled the ear, elasticity of pulse a hallmark (without losing the music’s threads), and with the achieved goal of a glowing rhetoric. Mahler’s intricate woodwind lines were revealingly expressed, Timothy Jones’s horn-playing was as poetic and brazen as required and the strings’ finesse was notable.

It’s the strings (with harp) that have the fourth-movement Adagietto to themselves. This love-letter to his wife Alma (music now regrettably excerpted for commercial and funereal purposes) was arguably taken too slowly by MTT (Willem Mengelberg, one of Mahler’s confidants, surely got it right in his 1926, totally convincing seven-minute Amsterdam recording). Nevertheless, at just over ten minutes, MTT inspired a gently sincere, intimate and ardently flowering account, raptly played. By contrast, Jones’s horn cut into this reverie to launch the rest of Part Three, a finale that is a miracle of counterpoint (how important, as MTT did, to have antiphonal violins at times like this) and an updated treatise of Baroque practice, with street-urchin and carnival elements made insouciantly indivisible.

What a way to ‘come back’ to a work self-exiled from! Four other aspects should be mentioned. The superb timpani-playing of Antoine Bedewi (virtuoso and, importantly, with cultured sound seemingly produced from within the instruments), cymbal clashes colourful rather than blatant, brass-playing powerful without dominating and with something saved for the end, and the (left-positioned) double basses not only wonderfully supportive but also richly independent – all part of MTT’s wholesome if vividly characterised interpretation that thankfully eschewed those recent ‘discoveries’ of how Mahler tweaked his own scores on particular occasions when conducting them, but without intending such changes to be definitive.

Michael Tilson Thomas returns to the LSO in a year’s time for concerts of Britten, Copland and Shostakovich. If he can do for the latter’s (equally over-played) Fifth Symphony, then it could be quite something.

The train going home? Cancelled!

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