LSO/Michael Tilson Thomas with Yo-Yo Ma – Britten, Copland & Shostakovich [3/3: Inscape, Symphony for Cello and Orchestra]

Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 June, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Michael Tilson ThomasWhen it comes to over-played fifth symphonies, Michael Tilson Thomas is something of a miracle worker. Just a year ago he and the LSO produced a Mahler 5 that rejuvenated interest in it, and now this time-honoured partnership has done a similar rehabilitation for Shostakovich of that number. The LSO could play this work on auto-pilot, but not with MTT, who explored the work first and foremost as a work of musical art. It opened with unanimity and power (it has to), and impassioned urgency. In a conception refreshingly free of extra-musical suggestion, and with a wide tonal and dynamic range, MTT sculpted a cohesive first movement if malleable enough to embrace reverie, parodistic marches and emotional upheaval. To open the scherzo, cellos and double basses really dug in to preface a droll view of the movement, the trio mixing Palm Court with vaudeville repartee, Gordan Nikolitch leading off with a charm-the-birds-out-of-the-trees violin solo. By contrast the succeeding Largo was from a private part of Shostakovich’s soul, an eloquent elegy seamlessly rising to an ardent outpouring. MTT was quite deliberate and emphatic with the opening of the finale, the required accelerando well-timed. Having found much pathos in the slower middle section, arriving at the conundrum that is the coda it was difficult to decide here if Shostakovich was siding with the Soviets or doing a quickstep hollow response to “our business is rejoicing” (Kurt Masur’s colossal unfolding of this peroration a completely different matter). Nicely ambivalent, then, but the big rallentando that MTT threw over the final measures, bass drum and timpani parting company, surely lost the remorseless tread and the robotic point of this coda. (On his BIS recording, Mark Wigglesworth offers no slowing at all, to penetrating effect.) With trenchant and responsive playing, if sometimes sounding a little tired (this was the LSO’s third concert with MTT in four days, all of tricky and unfamiliar repertoire), a clear-sighted and untrammelled account emerged of a piece easy to take for granted or become contemptuous of.

Yo-Yo Ma. Photograph: Stephen DanelianIn 1963 Benjamin Britten composed Symphony for Cello and Orchestra for Mstislav Rostropovich, a challenging work for performers and listeners alike, but very rewarding. This rendition was something of a disappointment. Although Yo-Yo Ma played with considerable commitment, he was limited in colour and volume, his capability for strong fortissimos cut short too early. This was a contained performance lacking nervous energy and the cut, thrust and direction so evident on Rostropovich’s July 1964 Decca recording with the composer conducting, which is so taut, declamatory, energised and organised. And while studio recordings and concert performances are not analogous, this particular taping does cast a very long shadow. One would not necessarily want a clone of it in a live gig, and a new viewpoint of any music is always welcome, but on their terms Yo-Yo Ma and MTT made the first movement seem aimless (hardly a Symphony), the LSO damped down, presumably to accommodate the cellist’s lack of projection. The rather sinister second movement was also restricted, the succeeding Adagio conversely a little too pressed ahead. Yo-Yo Ma did make something of the bowed, plucked and strummed cadenza that leads into the finale, opening as it does with an oblique and ear-catching trumpet tune, finely played by Roderick Franks, but still something was missing, that magic ingredient that goes beyond the (reading of the) notes. Rostropovich and the composer conjured so much vividness and character, an absolute masterpiece, which was somewhat suppressed by the current outing. Nevertheless Yo-Yo Ma returned for an encore, which he dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, a J. S. Bach ‘Sarabande’ from one of the Cello Suites, which he played raptly and from the heart, and was transporting in effect.

Aaron Copland wrote Inscape in 1967 for the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. Its title is owed to Gerard Manley Hopkins. The music, a long way from this composer’s Appalachian Spring and Rodeo, is terse and dissonant. If its title suggests introspection, it’s a very troubled one and leads to a gnarled and angry climax, Copland’s large orchestra snapping away. If there follows an uneasy tranquillity, the arresting and seminal chords that open the piece are not far from returning, the 12-minute work ending questioningly. Michael Tilson Thomas is a dedicated and insightful interpreter of Copland’s music and here guided the LSO through a thoroughly persuasive performance. Hopefully this current championing of Copland was not a three-off for the LSO and that a future visit from MTT will include the stunning Connotations.

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