Photo, Barbican/Mark Allan

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The last time I heard Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra was in this venue in November 2019, just a few weeks before the pandemic got a grip. Then the LSO’s former Principal Conductor and now Conductor Laureate had recovered from heart surgery, and more recently he has been treated for a brain tumour. Perhaps in terms of movement and gesture there was a hint of economy, but otherwise there were the familiar energy and mercurial engagement with the music and with an orchestra clearly delighted to be working with him again.

Among umpteen Piano Concerto performances over the years, there have been two that have become personal legends – Perahia and Jochum in the Schumann; Pires and Chailly in Beethoven 4 at the Proms – where everything you ever wanted from the genre in general and these two works in particular fell into place. MTT’s direction of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto with Lukáš Vondráček was in that league. The Czech pianist is a natural when it comes to the one for and against the many, the latter something MTT and the smallish LSO supplied with all the tactical skill of 3D chess masters. It’s the sort of multi-faceted music-making they’ve been taking in their stride for ages, but when delivered with such beady-eared and -eyed skill and panache, the result is thrilling. And in the thick of it, Vondráček – a formidable presence at the keyboard – was magnificent at stoking up the drama. Just when you think he might go a bit too rogue, he comes to heel, telling you that a particular entry, for example, might have been a bit too close to the edge, but it made it, just.

Vondráček was completely up for the grand romantic style, but then he floored us with playing of heavenly delicacy, the sort of feathering in of sound that flatters the orchestra. The Liszt E-flat Concerto is certainly a virtuoso showstopper, but with a Holy Trinity of soloist, orchestra and conductor of this calibre, the performance flared into something transcendent.

Following the interval, MTT launched Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the composer’s not-so-modest appraisal of love, life and death, with the life-force winning out at the end, but even that is ambiguous. MTT’s way with Mahler avoids self-indulgence; it’s already there in the music. And he is excellent at searching out the private and subjective that hide in plain sight in Mahler’s bigger picture. It helped hugely that James Fountain’s superbly played opening trumpet fanfare somehow set a note of mystery and uncertainty, which were then developed throughout the first movement like a character in a novel. Possibly it was a bit too personal, if only because it made the second and third movements seem rather similar in mood and intent to each other.

But he, and the LSO strings and harp, asserted a quiet tenderness in the Adagietto, Mahler’s love-song to his wife and within easy reach of heartbreak, and the climaxes arose unforced from the music. MTT had conducted the first three movements from memory, then opened his score for this and the fifth movements. The latter liberates the Adagietto’s love theme, and MTT made the most of this sense of release in the brilliant fugal music. The longed-for return of the brass chorale and its climactic dismissal hit the spot as far as joy and that hint of doubt were concerned.

The LSO’s playing was frighteningly good, in its presence, bloom and effortless, apposite characterisation. And I couldn’t help but notice that the nine double basses (placed away from the brass to the conductor’s left) played as though possessed, which, to judge from the spontaneous standing ovation, the audience also were.

A message from Michael Tilson Thomas.