Making big and bold statements came naturally to both Liszt and Mahler. If the audience is not sitting bolt upright after the first stirring orchestral chords and crashing octaves from the soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, something is clearly wrong. Similarly, if after the trumpet’s call to arms at the start of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a comatose state prevails, there’s not much hope of a successful resuscitation. These two works saw Michael Tilson Thomas’ very welcome return, together with that of Lukáš Vondráček, to the London Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Mark Allan | LSO

Full disclosure: I first heard MTT do Mahler 5 almost exactly fifty years ago, when he took over a New Philharmonia concert planned for Otto Klemperer, before his retirement from the concert platform. MTT may no longer be the tiger on the podium he once was, but he knows exactly how to get what he wants, with deft flicks of the baton and gestures that are economical and meaningful. When both arms are engaged in sweeping arcs, you instinctively know that the LSO will respond appropriately with even more commitment.

Time has left its mark, of course. This performance came in at 78 minutes, one of the slowest I have ever heard, and far removed from the blistering account given five decades previously. Yet nothing dragged; it was all of a piece. It helped that MTT had such an assured grip on the structure, allowing each movement to unfold, with unhurried shaping of the melodic lines. It also helped that the LSO was on such superlative form, the horn section alone sporting three principal players from British orchestras. Above all, the slow basic pulse allowed so much inner detail to be revealed: in the second movement, the pizzicati from second violins, antiphonally seated, delivered with power and precision; the rich colouring repeatedly drawn from violas and cellos; the bells of the clarinets frequently held high to give edge and vibrancy.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO

There was no hysteria, no suggestion of neuroticism. There was little to set the heart racing, yet this reading was musically wholly satisfying. Though in no way sentimental, it also did not lack feeling. The world-weariness was present in the very measured tread at the start of this Odyssey, following on from James Fountain’s rock-steady solo, and I heard it again in the aching lament that MTT found in the Adagietto. The Scherzo too showed Mahler from his tender side, more in the character of a Ländler, the softer edges additionally cushioned by the warmth of the string playing. MTT also allowed moments of euphoria to come through, chiefly at the end of the big central movement, which here alone took up twenty minutes. 

Lukáš Vondrácek
© Mark Allan | LSO

Vondráček certainly had something to say in the Liszt, even if he didn’t quite win me over. I have rarely heard a pianist go hammer and tongs to such an extent in the death-defying attack of the start. His upper body frequently crouched over the keys, there was no doubt he was in it for every degree of scorching virtuosity. Nonetheless, he still found time to explore the gentler poetic episodes, chiefly in the way he matched the silvery-edged sound of the triangle player in the third movement, and the light and playful quality that bounced off the keys in the Finale.

I found myself wondering how MTT, himself an accomplished pianist, might have played this work. Perhaps in a deliberate pre-echo of the main work, MTT made the start of the Quasi Adagio sound almost Mahlerian, full of the world-weariness he later uncovered, the soloist’s first entry strangely, but sympathetically, almost inaudible.