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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Tilson Thomas, Prokofiev, Mahler: Yefim Bronfman, piano, London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Barbican, 5 May, 2005 (TJH)

Tilson Thomas: Agnegram (UK Premiere)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D

Michael Tilson Thomas is feted – in the US at least – as one of the greatest living Mahler exponents. His ongoing Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra has racked up more than its fair share of gushing reviews, plaudits and awards; sales seem to have been pretty healthy too. With that in mind, one might have expected big things from his account of the First Symphony on Thursday, especially given his appearance was with the London Symphony Orchestra, who most recently performed the work under the rather inspired baton of Bernard Haitink.

On the plus side, Tilson Thomas does seem to have a few ideas of his own about Mahler. Sadly, most of those ideas are at odds with the music. Of all Mahler’s symphonies, the First should be the simplest to pull off: it is outwardly the most traditional, arguably the most crowd-pleasing, and certainly the most unambiguous work in Mahler’s oeuvre. Tilson Thomas seemed determined to fix what wasn’t broken though, and his conducting on Thursday was characterized by endless tweaking and tinkering, pulling tempi around unnecessarily and bringing out minor details to the detriment of the bigger picture. This was most irritating in the finale, which should be about as straightforward a journey from darkness into light as it gets: unfortunately, in Tilson Thomas’ hands, the music kept tripping over itself. Rubato was liberally applied to passages that didn’t need it whilst being mysteriously absent from the passages that did; the Luftpause at rehearsal number 34 was exaggerated to the point of giving my concert partner the giggles; the Sehr langsam episode was far too drawn-out, with a monstrous, grotesquely Hollywood-style climax; while the final push to the finish line was broken up by some showy and totally counterproductive tempo fluctuations. With all that tripping up, it’s no wonder the symphony ultimately fell flat.


The first half had opened with one of Tilson Thomas’ own compositions, a birthday tribute to the SFSO’s long-time patron Agnes Albert, wittily entitled Agnegram. A slight piece – just four and a half minutes long – scored for a ridiculously outsized orchestra, it was an enjoyable but rather forgettable confection in the Gershwin/Bernstein/Elfman tradition of American symphonic music. Bright colours and generally tonal harmonies ensured it received the sort of ovation it was designed to induce.

More troublesome was the performance of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto which followed. Of all Prokofiev’s piano concertos, the First is surely the strangest: a young man’s piece, it is chockfull of wonderful ideas, but lacks development or cogent musical structuring. Nonetheless, it is an absolute delight when performed well, and the Barbican audience was lucky to have Yefim Bronfman at the keys: his reading of the solo part was characteristically exciting, hammering home Prokofiev’s motoric rhythms and finding echoes of Rachmaninoff in the slower passages. Tilson Thomas, though, seemed to be on a mission to smooth over everything weird and wonderful in this piece, taking the fast outer sections at a uniform tempo and speeding through the limpid Andante melody at the work’s heart. In doing so, he robbed the work of the only thing keeping the concerto from being an unruly mess of half-baked ideas: character. Not even Bronfman’s considerable talents could save Prokofiev from falling flatter even than Mahler.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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