From the Steeples and the Mountains; The Unanswered Question
Piano Concerto No 3 in C, Op.26
The Firebird [1910 Original]
Yuja Wang (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas
Reviewed by: Francesco Burns
Reviewed: 30 June, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
With outstanding recordings of Charles Ives’s symphonies and orchestral music under his belt, Michael Tilson Thomas understands this music deeply, and it showed in these performances, first the bizarre From the Steeples and the Mountains (1901), a depiction of Ives’s neighbourhood literally bursting into flames due to a lightening strike. As with much of Ives, this piece’s complexity can easily engulf a conductor, but Tilson Thomas’s understanding of the idiom ensured he was in total control. He allowed the mass of densely layered sound to germinate and grow organically as if looking forward fifty years forward to Ligeti’s music. Next was possibly Ives’s best-known work, the prophetic The Unanswered Question. MTT stood almost motionless communicating with the offstage strings (“the silence of the druids”) and the offstage trumpet (which poses the question) via video camera. This conductor is aware how clearly this music speaks for itself and was content to cue entries and keep time: the result was a moving and natural discourse.
Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto was tackled by rising star Yuja Wang. Many young pianists treat this work as a vehicle to showcase their strength, a sort of boxing match between pianist and piano, and between piano and orchestra. Tilson Thomas didn’t fight, presenting it rather as a highly charged dialectic. This is not to say Wang needs to be treated with kid gloves for she achieved a convincing balance between the percussive and lyrical, dancing elegantly with the orchestra in the second movement; most impressive was her sensitive phrasing and scintillating accuracy in filigree passages. She played the third movement with an almost vocal sensibility, ranging from a subdued whisper to an agitated shout. The coda could have been a little more hysterical, and although Wang opted for glissandos in the nigh-on-impossible cluster-chord flourishes, one couldn’t help be humbled at what was an authoritatively commanding performance. For an encore, Wang offered the finale from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A (K331), ‘Rondo alla turca’, in Volodos’s transcription.
Tilson Thomas then presented Stravinsky’s The Firebird in its original version. The opening glowed with warm colours, setting the bar high. ‘Dance of the Firebird’ was light and glistening, and the encounter with ‘The thirteen enchanted Princesses’ was shaped in long languid phrases. The crepuscular hues of ‘Dawn’ were dense. ‘Infernal Dance’ into was whipped into terrifying frenzy, spinning up to its emphatic climax with some solid brass playing. Throughout this performance, Tilson Thomas’s command was impressive, marking entries so clearly with a snap, shaping textures and balancing the sound with such ease. The ending was a joyous affair avoiding crude bombast. Overall, this was an exquisitely polished, seamless performance.