St Lukes on a glorious early summer afternoon, sitting above the London Symphony Orchestra with an audience smaller than the band, it felt like every note played was under the microscope. The last time I’d seen the LSO was on the day before the first lockdown. On that occasion, by some weird stroke of fate, they played one of the bleakest and most apocalyptic works in the repertoire, Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony. Today we were treated to a confection of a much sweeter nature, hopefully reflecting a more positive future. Michael Tilson Thomas is an old friend of the LSO and his precise and expressive presence on the podium produced fine musical results all round.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the LSO at the Barbican last week
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Aaron Copland’s suite from the 1939 film score for Our Town, is in the composer's most sophisticated homespun manner. The musical language is stripped back, hymn-like and chordal. The orchestration is very subtle and restrained. The harmonies are very personal to the composer and often modal. The impression was of a harmonium, with the player not quite remembering the ‘correct’ harmonies. The LSO were as refined as you’d expect and Tilson Thomas knew exactly how to control the dynamics and tempo.

Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major is one of the composer's only works to shine with genuine joy. Composed for his son Maxim on his 19th birthday, there was no pressure from the state or his own painful life and the result is one of the most approachable and satisfying concertos for piano to come out of the 20th century. And who better to showcase its brilliance and touching charm than Yuja Wang? From the off in the Allegro, she was crystalline and rhythmically alert, melting into gentle tone as required. In the genuinely touching Andante, she didn’t overplay the romance of the beautiful main theme, instead it had, in her hands, a gentle and persuasive feeling of affection and warmth. The lively finale again was technically brilliant, played at a pace which allowed for the fireworks, but without Ignoring the humanity in the music.

Yuja Wang and the LSO at the Barbican last week
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor is an early work in which the composer was keen to show the world what he could achieve in extended structures. Following on from his First Symphony, he opted to include more folk-like material, drawing on a trio of Ukranian folksongs. If some of the handling of the material is slightly unruly, the overall effect is entertaining and satisfying, preferable in some ways to the overemphasis on heated emotions in the later symphonies. It is a favourite of Tilson Thomas and his obvious affection shone through in this perfectly judged performance. The gawky shape of the opening movement was pulled together with ease, the constant development of its colorful themes and orchestration was a delight. The perky march that follows was shamelessly charming here. The minor key Scherzo didn’t cloud the proceedings and, in this performance, was distinguished by some of the most ravishing woodwind playing I’ve heard for some time. The structure of the brassy finale was held together expertly, with the final outburst of the motto theme given its head without any inhibitions or doubts.

****1