LSO/Tilson Thomas – review

Yo-Yo Ma
The Guardian (UK)

By Tim Ashley

Close friends, influenced by each other's work, Britten and Shostakovich regularly share concert programmes. For his series with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra, however, Michael Tilson Thomas added Copland to the mix. His choice is in part personal – he knew all three composers – but it also reminds us of the friendship between Copland and Britten during the latter's wartime US exile and highlights Copland's influence on his music.

The three works in the second concert – Copland's Quiet City, Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto, Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas – can all be described as studies in alienation. Quiet City, for trumpet (the splendid Philip Cobb), cor anglais (Christine Pendrill) and strings, derives from incidental music to a play by Irwin Shaw, depicting an ageing man's recognition of his failure to realise his youthful ambitions. The fitful brooding of Shostakovich's 1966 Concerto has been ascribed to the composer's anxieties about his failing health and to the stagnation of the Brezhnev regime. Making considerable demands on the soloist, it showed off Ma's stamina and lyricism to perfection, though the whole thing could have done with more bite.

After such a glum first half, Britten's 1957 ballet, given in the concert suite prepared in 1997 by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke, came as relief and a pleasure. The narrative, charting the dispossessed Princess Rose's growing fascination for a being half-man, half-salamander, has proved problematic for successive choreographers.

But the score – which blends gamelan with western styles, and honours Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky without losing its integrity – is fantastically inventive. It's a gift for Tilson Thomas, whose conducting tingled with excitement from start to finish. The playing was tremendous, too, with Britten's gamelan making the LSO percussionists the stars of the evening.