This DVD is a celebration of the relationship between Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His association with the orchestra began in 1968 at Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer home, where he was awarded the prestigious Koussevitzky Prize. William Steinberg appointed Tilson Thomas to be his assistant when he took the helm of the BSO. The newly appointed conductor, aged 24, was called on to replace Steinberg midway through a concert at the New York Philharmonic Hall on 22 October 1969. He stepped in after the interval to lead a complicated double concerto by Robert Starer and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. Even as a young man, Tilson Thomas had already built up a considerable reputation in Los Angeles but this appearance in New York was a golden opportunity. This may have been a major step forward for him but Tilson Thomas was no upstart: he had already worked closely with a number of the most important musicians of the time including Stravinsky, Copland, Boulez and Heifetz. In 1970 the BSO and Tilson Thomas gave a number of concerts and this DVD draws its content from those performances.
The music of Charles Ives has been a regular feature of Tilson Thomas’s career. This performance of the Three Places in New England was quickly followed up by a Deutsche Grammophon recording, coupled with Sun-treader by Carl Ruggles. It was always an excellent LP and it’s good to see the orchestra playing the work with such affection in concert. The central Putnam’s Camp is a glorious riot of sound and the conductor delivers it with clarity and precision. The music isn’t just a riot and the nostalgic, elegiac sections are also beautifully done. There are a few things that are striking about the young conductor. He is very confident and his technique is assured with an immaculate, clear beat. His movement on the podium is minimal and he seems rather detached and cold. Eye contact is regarded as being really important in the art of conducting but there seems to be little of this going on and there is barely a smile to be seen from him. This is a serious young man going about his business and to be objective about it, the results he achieves are excellent and the BSO is in fine form.
The Sibelius Fourth Symphony isn’t exactly a stroll in the park. It’s a truly great work but one that makes considerable demands on the conductor and, indeed, the audience. Remarkably, the BSO hadn’t played it for thirty years. It was last conducted by Koussevitzky. The striking thing about the performance is the elegance and clarity of line. The symphony can easily become a dull, sombre and depressing affair. Not so here - Tilson Thomas keeps it moving with considerable grace and the textures are bright, without any over-emphasis from the doom-laden lower strings that can often dominate the piece. The finale includes tubular bells and glockenspiel to good effect. One small point that irritated me - within a second of the end of the symphony, instead have staying still for a few moments, Tilson Thomas puts his baton down on the stand (clunk) and this totally spoils the “musician’s silence” that should be part and parcel of the performance. He kills the magic stone dead and it’s a real shame.
Following studies with Wagner’s grand-daughter, Friedelind, Tilson Thomas spent the summer of 1966 as assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. The exciting performance of Wagner’s Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey that brings the DVD to a close demonstrates the fabulous tonal quality of the BSO in full flight. The horn players are singled out for their outstanding contributions but the BSO as a whole is the star of the show.
The 2013 interview is devoted to MTT’s early career in Boston and is full of reminiscences of the orchestra and the star players it possessed in the 1970s. The 1970 interview is almost Pythonesque. It looks like a single-take amateurish affair with a gushing but unpolished interviewer in full Graham Chapman mode. Good fun though. Picture quality and sound is fine for its age and there is a subtle use of split screens for the orchestral soloists. Thankfully we are spared those microscopic close-ups so beloved of modern producers. Here, we are given a good overview of the orchestra and shots of individual players and orchestral sections when appropriate.
This is an excellent DVD, well worth seeing for the Ives and Sibelius. The Wagner and the interviews are bonuses.
Masterwork Index: Sibelius symphony 4