The second of two Barbican concerts celebrating a fifty-year association between Conductor Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra brought together an improbable combination of two familiar Russian works and a sparkling concoction from the conductor’s own pen. With an emphasis on popular appeal, these performances were a mixture of scintillation, eye watering bravura and meticulous rehearsal.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the LSO
© Liam Hennebry

Written some twenty years ago, Tilson Thomas’s Agnegram was conceived for the San Francisco Symphony to celebrate the 90th birthday of its music patron Agnes Albert. From the evidence of its dazzling textures one might assume she was a force of nature. The letters of her name are encoded into the work’s musical fabric, a stylistic melange somewhere between Broadway and Bernstein abounding in riotous colours and breathless invention. Its eight minutes flew by in a whirl of swooning melodies, jazzy rhythms and heady percussion, the whole deliriously upbeat. No matter if froth was seldom balanced by substance, this was a glorious romp – an uplifting celebratory bash to which the LSO responded with obvious vigour.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto drew a mixed response from Nicola Benedetti. She appeared somewhat out of sorts during the first movement, at least until she reached the cadenza where she replaced thin, unvarnished tone for her customary polish and clean, nifty finger work. There were varied colours too and phrases now eloquently sculpted, her playing style shedding an earlier coldness of expression. Earlier tensions now allowed room to reveal the true depth of playing which combined spotless execution with warmth of tone through the registers. The Canzonetta brought an agreeable accommodation between retrospection and tender lyricism and some fine woodwind contributions, while the Finale, taken at a homicidal tempo, drew nervous glances from Tilson Thomas towards the soloist as some short-lived ambiguity unsettled proceedings. But in a movement where the soloist barely ‘comes up for air’, Benedetti’s technique carried the day and one could only listen in wonder at such fearless virtuosity.

After the interval the programme moved into war-torn Russia for Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, first performed in 1945 and here given a performance of accumulating interest and drama if not necessarily fully realising the work’s theatrical potential. Its opening movement unfolded with an impressive sense of forward momentum, nothing hurried yet allowing its stern grandeur to build naturally. The Allegro marcato swung along with plenty of insouciance and caustic bite – all superbly balanced and showcasing individual LSO talents to pleasing effect. A brooding greyness seeped into the Adagio in an account that never quite gripped for want of dynamic contrast and passionate communication. Not so the ear-catching Finale enlivened by distinguished playing from perky clarinet and rampant percussion. Quickfire mood changes were smoothly integrated into a movement of kaleidoscopic colours, at times reminiscent of Shostakovich, and the whole driven along with committed playing and a sweeping optimism. Prokofiev’s distinctive musical personality was mostly outlined in this performance where disciplined more than characterful direction was the order of the day.