Ahead of its US tour with Michael Tilson Thomas, the London Symphony Orchestra flexed its muscles in a display of orchestral strength on home turf in the Barbican. Thursday’s concert, a gala to mark MTT’s 70th birthday last December, featured epic Shostakovich (his Fifth Symphony). Another epic – Sibelius’ Second – concluded tonight’s programme, while Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes demonstrated the incredible colours in the orchestra’s palette. Shostakovich reappeared in humorous guise, Yuja Wang joining them for the witty, knockabout First Piano Concerto.

Yuja Wang © Fadil Berisha
Yuja Wang
© Fadil Berisha

Britten’s Aldeburgh was immediately evoked in the splendid playing of the Sea Interludes. The string tone ranged from the icy chill of “Dawn” to the warm, rounded glow of “Sunday morning”, over which silvery woodwinds provided a seabird soundscape. Lower strings loomed menacingly in “Moonlight”, flecked with flute and harp, after which Tilson Thomas unleashed the brass for a thrilling “Storm”, occasionally congested by the acoustic.

Perhaps pulses were set racing a little hard at the end of the Britten, for the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Concerto no.1 for piano, trumpet and strings careered along at breakneck speed. Yuja Wang never faltered, her crisp playing and clean articulation matched by the LSO’s principal trumpet Philip Cobb, playing his sardonic commentaries from behind the string band. The highlight of the lyrical second movement was Cobb’s muted solo of cool blues.

Wang was on positively impish form in the finale, where she and Cobb engaged in rapier-like thrust and parry in the frenetic Keystone Cops coda. More fun was had in Wang’s encore, a composition written for her by Tilson Thomas evoking a meeting in a nightclub, entitled “Do you come here often?” Playing from an iPad, as opposed to the more traditional score employed for the Shostakovich, this was a flurry of jazzy syncopations and cross-hands, all met with a beaming smile from the composer.

The performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony was little short of extraordinary. As the conductor acknowledged in our recent interview, the LSO has a rich Sibelius tradition, most recently with another former Principal Conductor, Sir Colin Davis. Tilson Thomas’ reading was in a very different vein – expansive, emotional, histrionic, as if conjuring up the ghost of his great mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Tempos were deliberate, rubatos generous and elastic bar lines were stretched every which way, but the LSO followed him keenly to give an electrifying account. I usually enjoy my Sibelius served with Nordic ice, but found this emotional alternative had a powerful draw.

The tread of the opening Allegretto had tremendous ebb and flow from the start. Tilson Thomas was far more animated on the podium than before the interval, crouching one moment, almost kneeling the next, then balanced on one foot, his gestures swinging from side to side in fluid sweeps of the arms. He drew staggering rhythmic precision in the string pizzicatos, whilst the woodwinds (with three principals brought off the subs’ bench at half-time) impressed with gorgeous tone.

A dark mood prevailed at the opening of the second movement, drawn by basses, cellos, bassoons and timpani with bold, charcoal strokes. Brass provided granite heft as Tilson Thomas sculpted a big, powerful reading. The frenzied Vivacissimo atmosphere of the third movement was becalmed by the brief woodwind lullabies until the mighty finale was launched on the most grandiose of scales. Occasionally, I wondered if the pulling around of the score was too much, but when the orchestral response was so splendidly secure, resistance was futile. Underpinned by thunderous timpani and rock solid brass playing, the symphony blazed a triumphant course to its conclusion.