In this concert, the second of three featuring the works of Mahler, Michael Tilson Thomas prefaced the First Symphony with a performance of the Chamber Concerto by Alban Berg.
With its atonal harmonies, mathematically ordered architecture and use of serial techniques such as retrograde and inversion, the Chamber Concerto is one of Berg’s most complex and challenging works. More than twenty years after I first encountered it, I still find the concerto slightly unfamiliar and elusive, as if it somehow recomposes itself into a similar but different piece each time I hear it.
It was therefore helpful that Tilson Thomas took a few minutes to talk about the piece beforehand, using the piano to show how the opening themes of the work were derived from the names of Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher, and Anton Webern, his fellow pupil, as well as from the musical notation of Berg’s own name.
Tilson Thomas’s subsequent performance of the Chamber Concerto was extremely compelling, not least as a result of the expressive playing of the two soloists, violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Yefim Bronfman. Shaham’s account of the Adagio in particular was gripping, fully capturing the movement’s mystery and intensity, and the cadenza for both soloists at the start of the third movement was excitingly delivered. Tilson Thomas drew virtuosic playing from the thirteen wind players of the LSO, and it was good to hear the exposition repeat included in the finale.
Given the number of times the LSO has performed Mahler’s First Symphony under Gergiev over the last few years, it was no surprise that their playing for Tilson Thomas was so dramatic and incisive, a few slips in the first movement notwithstanding. The opening passage was highly atmospheric, and the offstage brass fanfares were well handled. Tilson Thomas’s interpretation was at its best in the third movement, the Kletzmer theme characterfully presented without exaggeration or parody. Elsewhere, however, there was a slight feeling of detachment about the performance, and even the finale, for all the brilliance of the playing, didn’t manage to set the pulse racing. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear such a consistently well presented performance.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk