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Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, Joshua Bell (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, Barbican, 20th November 2004 (MB)

‘Russian Romance’ was the unifying theme of this concert, Michael Tilson Thomas’ first with the London Symphony Orchestra in its Centenary year. If in the end this was an inappropriate sobriquet to describe the performances themselves there could be no doubting that the music making was of the highest quality.

Tchaikovsky’s Festival Coronation March was written to celebrate the inauguration of Tsar Alexander III in 1883 and if it is not one of this composer’s greatest pieces of occasional music, it is nevertheless colourful and dramatic. Enlivened by mazurkas and anthems, alongside the conventional brass pomp of its fanfares, its brevity seems geared to perfection; in Tilson Thomas’ hands it came across with more muscularity of tone than is usual, something that was to set the musical mood for the conductor’s excerpts from Romeo and Juliet later.

Josef Kotek was the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a work that with its combination of lyrical romanticism and helter-skelter virtuosity can still pack a punch. Joshua Bell – not, it must be admitted, as technically secure in this work as one might have imagined – gave just the kind of performance that compels attention. With an orchestral backdrop that was less forceful than is usual, Bell seemed to focus on the works lyricism; some beautifully broad phrasing on the G string in the Allegro’s opening, for example, gave more contrast to this movement than the work usually warrants, and a cadenza of almost breathless virtuosity was plaintive in its soulfulness. Melancholy did not swamp the central Canzonetta, but it could be argued that the sheer vivaciousness of the Finale electrified for the wrong reasons: here Bell sat back as the orchestra revelled more easily in Tchaikovsky’s folksy characterization than the soloist did.

Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (that most virtuoso of instruments) came into their own in the second half of this concert, with the conductor’s sequence (combined with some scenes from the 1936 ‘Suite No.1’) from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Eschewing any notion that this music is balletic, Tilson Thomas gave one of the most incendiary performances of this score I have heard in a very long time. Deliberately or otherwise, the music played concentrated on masculinity and inter-family warfare, with only the Balcony Scene acting as an intermezzo to the symphonic scale of what Tilson Thomas presented. ‘The Quarrel’, for example, was as malevolent as I have heard it (although a huge ritardando for horns seemed misplaced) but even this seemed understated by ‘The Duke’s Command’; with its massive brass and timpani dissonances, overwhelming in their impact, and with the LSO strings placing dark chords beside them, the power was irresistible. A measured ‘Dance of the Knights’ preceded one of the ballet’s emotional cornerstones, ‘The Balcony’ scene. The sheer beauty of this music was captured by Tilson Thomas and the LSO with uncharacteristic opulence; the opening cello melody, for example, was simply breathtaking, a single arc of expressionism that ravished the ears, and the close of the scene sunk with almost pre-emptive fatalism into a crushing pianissimo.

Tilson Thomas concluded his sequence with the scenes between Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo that close Act II. Brilliantly played, the conductor brought to each scene an overwhelming sense of orchestral colour and pacing, with the fifteen blows signifying the death of Tybalt being particularly powerful in their impact (if not quite with that terrifying sense of drama that Celibidache brought to this music). But with conductor and orchestra, so singular of purpose, this music had a searing edge that was unforgettable.

Marc Bridle

Further Listening:

Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto: Bronislaw Huberman, Staatskapelle Berlin, William Steinberg (EMI 7 64855 2)

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