The Barbican Hall was filled to capacity for the third of three concerts featuring the music of Copland, Britten and Shostakovich under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. As with the two earlier concerts in the series, the programme juxtaposed the familiar with the lesser known. Copland was here represented by one of his least frequently performed orchestral works, Inscape, originally commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1967.
Although generally regarded as a populist composer thanks to such works as El Salón México and Appalachian Spring, Copland was equally at home writing abstract, modernist scores. Inscape is a notable example of this style, a work that uses serial composition techniques and opens with a menacing twelve note chord. Even in this often dissonant score, however, Copland’s melodic and orchestral style is readily apparent, and the final third of the work is has an engaging nocturnal radiance. Tilson Thomas’ interpretation did not recapture the ardour and mystery of Leonard Bernstein’s early recording – partly a result of the Barbican acoustic perhaps – but the performance benefited from the fine solo playing of the LSO’s leader, Gordan Nikolitch.
Britten was represented by his magnificent Cello Symphony, composed in 1963 for Rostropovich. Yo-Yo Ma here provided an urbane and proficient performance of the solo part, although not an especially dramatic one. Tilson Thomas’ accompaniment was similarly restrained, highlighting the delicacy of Britten’s scoring but rarely bringing it to life. The result was a performance disappointingly devoid of tension and excitement.
Yo-Yo Ma’s artistry was better demonstrated in his encore, a performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite, which he dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis.
The concluding performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was similar to one that Tilson Thomas gave at the Proms with the San Francisco Symphony in 2007, a sophisticated, cosmopolitan account rather than a fervent Russian one. The purity and expressiveness of the string sound was a notable feature, as were the flute solos provided by Adam Walker. A greater sense of spontaneity would not have gone amiss, however, for this was a performance where the music seemed ordered rather than leaping off the page and tempo changes sounded manufactured rather than developing organically. Tilson Thomas summoned a big sound for the symphony’s closing pages, but ultimately this was an interpretation to satisfy the intellect rather than the emotions.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.