Michael Tilson Thomas is not a conductor I would associate with Anton
Bruckner but tonight’s LSO concert proved me wrong, with the conductor
showing he has a great instinct and feeling for the composer, in what
was an extraordinarily powerful and brutally direct performance of his
Ninth Symphony in D minor.
The opening bars of the first
movement were sustained and gripping with Tilson Thomas judging the
pulse and dynamics to perfection. His conception was monumental, adopting
a wide dynamic range but one which was never sensational or distorted
to extremes. The first explosive climax had incredible weight from brass
and timpani instilling a sense of terror. This was contrasted with the
pulsating and reflective lyrical passages where the LSO strings played
with warmth and grace. The tempi were broad but never dragged, with
the conductor allowing the music to unfold organically at its own pace,
almost as if he were not there: letting the music speak in this self-effacing
way is the art of great conducting. As the movement marched forward
the tension and drama increased with the concluding passages sounding
truly menacing with incisive brass and timpani playing with overwhelming
The central Scherzo had
a manic mixture of horror juxtaposed with humour, with the pounding
lower brass and timpani having menacing weight contrasted by the more
lyrical sections for pizzicato strings which had a lilting grace.
The conductor brought out the metallic dissonances and machine-like
rhythms which made the work sound both primordial as well as ultra modern,
pointing towards Bartok.
The Adagio opened with
a sea of solemn strings expressing anxiety tinged with anguish. Here
the LSO violins were in a class of their own, sounding superior to those
of the current BPO and VPO in sheer sweetness of tone and weight. Tilson
Thomas is the only conductor apart from Klemperer that I know of who
is able to sustain the repeated note of the flute (which, under Klemperer
actually sounds like morse-code going out to space). All other conductors
smudge this passage not knowing quite what to do with it. The concluding
passages were beautifully sustained with the mellow horns bidding us
farewell to life. As the sounds melted away into nothingness the conductor
kept his arm up to halt the anticipated applause (which worked).
While the Adagio may be
called ‘life negating’, Bruckner’s Te Deum is ‘life affirming’
and a fitting ‘last movement’ for the unfinished Ninth.
Bruckner actually expressed the wish for his Te
Deum to be performed as a conclusion to his last symphony which
he knew he would not live to finish. Literally seconds after the closing
of the Ninth the soloists made a quick entry on stage and the conductor
launched straight into the Te Deum. To my amazement it worked
and seemed perfectly apt; by playing both works together there was a
great sense of unity.
The Ninth Symphony played
with the Te Deum could well be described as Bruckner’s
‘Choral symphony’. As the composer himself said: "I’ll
write my last symphony in D minor, just like Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven
won’t object." Tilson Thomas conducted the Te Deum with
great flair and attack and somehow made the music seem like a natural
continuation of the Ninth.
Both Christine Goerke and Alice
Coote were indisposed and were replaced at short notice by Turid Karlsen
and Natascha Petrinsky and both rose magnificently to the occasion,
singing with great verve and passion. Equally marvellous were Anthony
Dean Griffey and Peter Rose who sang with majesty and authority. But
the crown has to go to the London Symphony Chorus who seemed so transfigured
by their conductor that they sang beyond themselves, sounding miraculous.
It was a great tragedy that this
concert was not recorded for the ‘LSO Live’ CD label. Recent exceptional
concerts under Boulez, Maazel and Zinman with the LSO have not appeared
on their label - probably due to contractual reasons - while they have
issued mainly rather mediocre concerts. It is a pity this really outstanding
one will also be missed.