Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO / Tilson Thomas: Tchaikovsky – Overture: Romeo and Juliet, Piano Concerto No 1, Symphony No 1 ‘Winter Daydreams’ @ Barbican Hall, London

13 November 2005


Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

To close his short Barbican season entitled Rediscover TchaikovskyMichael Tilson Thomas programmed three contasting works, two of which were very familiar, the other probably less well known by the majority of the audience. To me, this concert was far more successful than the previous installment in the series, and the London Symphony Orchestra was back on standard form – which is to say, world-class.

It was a pleasure to hear the Romeo and Juliet overture played with such focus. This was no pipe-opener, but rather a detailed interpretation of a tightly structured piece of what is essentially programme music. I was particularly struck by the terror of Tchaikovsky’s rendering of the story, compared to Shakespeare’s. Ominous clarinet and oboe themes emerge from the sombre tremolo string accompaniment, here brilliantly executed by the ensemble. With such a beginning, Tchaikovsky’s dramatic priority is clear.

Most LSO concerts are predictable in one respect only – that they will be unconventional in some way. This was the case with the First Piano Concerto, taken at a brisker pace by Tilson Thomas than normal, but it certainly worked. The violins allowed the piano chords to come through in the exposition, so that we could hear the contribution of soloist Vladmir Feltsman with welcome ease.

Feltsman also gave an unconventional reading, and at some points of the first movement I was a little surprised by his physically neurotic performance. However, he had such a clear, convincing outlook that the odd missed note or rhythmic peculiarity was forgiven. The second movement was exquisite, with the piano taking over from the opening flute melody with fluidity.

This was a team effort, with the orchestra holding back at times to allow the soloist to project, whilst Feltsman listened and reacted to the LSO with spontaneity. Rarely have I heard such a stirring rendition of the third movement, where the opening folk theme was given great precision, attack and bite.

Particularly impressive was the scalic passage where the pianist has to deal with a theme running through the hands whilst providing an accompanying figure in various registers at the same time. Often pianists pull back here, but Feltsman rose to the challenge splendidly, playing it in strict tempo – and he deserved the loud ovation.

After the interval we heard the relative rarity, Symphony No. 1 ‘Winter Daydreams’. It was written not long after the composer had entered the Moscow Conservatoire as teacher, and in some respects it suffers from a lack of compositional control. It’s true that the soaring melodies, heart-wringing harmonies and high emotion are all there, but sometimes the music loses overall direction.

However, in the hands of this great orchestra and conductor – the latter directing from memory – it was difficult not to respond to the music’s luscious orchestration. Tchaikovsky uses some clever contrapuntal techniques, which allowed the ensemble to shine. The opening of the first movement was typical of this, with the violins playing a soft oscillating figure whilst the flute and bassoon played the melody on top.

The harmonic nuances in the second movement were exquisitely demonstrated in this subtle reading, with the oboe theme poignantly carrying over the shimmering string accompaniment, and the final bars with a high flute line were also beautifully taken.

The scherzo was sprightly; and although the final movement is the most sprawling of the four, the conductor pushed his players to their limits, with the big chromatic finish providing an appropriately thrilling close to the evening and the mini-series.

With the LSO on such excellent form, the forthcoming Bernard Haitink Beethoven symphony cycle – the orchestra’s first in 21 years – is not to be missed.


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