Ten years on from his time in charge of the London Symphony Orchestra, the return visits of Michael Tilson Thomas sometimes herald a certain gravitas.
Ten years on from his time in charge of the London Symphony Orchestra, the return visits of Michael Tilson Thomas sometimes herald a certain gravitas. Not so the birthday concert for the man the programme book called "the youngest 60-year-old in the world". This was a vivid reminder not just of old times but of the way the orchestra has developed towards a fuller, richer sound: even though players have changed, the big moments sounded like a throwback to the bright, aggressive LSO of old.
It was ideal for Tilson Thomas's Agnagram. When busy conductors remember that they also compose, the results can go two ways: a struggle to catch up, or a determination to make up for lost time by packing in as much as possible. This feisty opener, a UK premiere, was of the latter persuasion. It was written for another birthday, the 90th of San Francisco orchestral patron Agnes Albert, who must be a spirited lady.
There was no chance of Agnagram sounding contrived, even though it put its themes through all the tricks and devices, because the material stuck in the memory, the pace was non-stop, and the scoring had a noisy, kaleidoscopic brilliance. The First Piano Concerto of Prokofiev also thrives on relentless drive and larger-than-life projection. It was a successful piece of self-promotion for the 20-year-old composer when he played it himself, and its overwhelming energy, slightly subversive humour and naked ambition needs, from his successors as soloist, an unflagging stamina as well as extreme virtuosity. Yefim Bronfman fitted the bill nicely.
In Mahler's First Symphony, an almost equally youthful work, the outcome was more equivocal. For the first quarter-hour it was one of those Tilson Thomas performances that seem to be fuelled by that petrol that gives you "an extra burst of power, just when you need it". There was some hefty use of the brakes, and an ungainly scramble to the finishing line. The Scherzo had a less frantic pace, but the strings' slides and the little manipulations of pace sounded more imposed than natural.
Best was the funeral march, in which the interludes of Jewish heritage music had a proper seriousness. The finale's drama built steadily, and culminated in an ending of imposing breadth, though if Mahler wanted a trombonist and a trumpeter to stand up as well as all the horns, he would surely have stopped them unbalancing the sonority so crudely.