Classical: New World Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas

Barbican Hall, London

There are times when a critic has to repent. As recorded by Simon Rattle, John Adams's Harmonie-lehre provoked one of my most intemperate reviews. At the time I thought it a colossal, empty, pretentious Millennium Dome of a piece. After Michael Tilson Thomas's performance with the Miami-based New World Symphony on Wednesday, I still wasn't entirely convinced. Harmonielehre does over-reach itself, and the slow sequential writing in the middle movement easily coagulates. But there is a great deal in it that is good and alive. And yes, the thunderous E flat major conclusion, with its pounding drums and ecstatic trumpets and horns, is terrific - or it was here.

Is it simply that, when it comes to Adams, Tilson Thomas is The Right Stuff and Rattle isn't? Here the rhythms were so much more sharply defined, the colours brighter, and when the first movement's long Big Tune veered from Mahler to Broadway - well, the New World Symphony plainly have it in their blood. They deserved an encore for this; and they got one. But this was another of those occasions when I, for one, would much rather have left the hall with the advertised final work still ringing in my ears.

Still, there were other vivid memories - for instance the first movement, "The Saint Gaudens in Boston Common", of Charles Ives's Three Places in New England. After years of subsisting on worthy, more-or-less accurate but rather dour recordings of Ives, the lush, up-front expressivity of this performance was initially rather startling. But it worked. Ives may have been a pioneering modernist, but he needs loving phrasing too. Play the Three Places with the kind of intelligent tenderness shown here and the densest passages acquire new, three-dimensional life.

Written in l947, 33 years after Three Places, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 normally invites the kind of adjectives Ives is thought to repel: nostalgic, conservative, sweetly sad. But MTT, his orchestra and soprano Barbara Hendricks brought fresh air, and a sense that, like Ives, Barber had his ears open to the America that was happening around him - or at least he did at the time recalled in James Agee's touching childhood reminiscence. What was lacking was a sense of narrative, of a child's wide-eyed wonder. Hendricks sang elegantly enough but not involvingly; she seemed far more at home in Adams's gorgeous orchestrations of three Baudelaire songs by Debussy. An element of distance, of passions delicately controlled, is essential to both verse and music.

Even so, Knoxville was still moving. And if, by placing it next to Ives, Tilson Thomas intended to show that categories of "modernist" and "conservative" don't ultimately mean a great deal, he succeeded. It all made an excellent contribution to the Barbican's Inventing America festival. Though if anybody is considering launching a Campaign Against Encores, count me in.

Stephen Johnson

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