Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler and Berg

Helen Wallace heads to the Barbican for a concert of rarely performed Berg and Mahler's First Symphony

Michael Tilson ThomasThe road to hell is paved with good intentions… and Berg’s intention with his Chamber Concerto was simply to please his teacher Arnold Schoenberg on his 50th birthday, and prove just how much he had learnt from him. If only he hadn’t tried so terribly hard.

Michael Tilson Thomas (right) slyly suggested in his engaging introduction that the composer might have put himself under a tad ‘too much pressure’: he sat at the piano and played the suggestive ‘name’ motifs of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, while the marvellous London Symphony Orchestra wind/brass soloists gave us the four Vienna-soaked dance themes – so innocent, so pregnant with possibility in their first incarnations, before he got to work on his retrogrades, inversions, coded layers and whole-sale musical palindrome… As Tilson Thomas said, this was a rare opportunity to hear the work, and you could hardly ask for two more masterly and committed soloists than Gil Shaham and Yefim Bronfman (why else was Esa Pekka-Salonen in the audience?).

While Tilson Thomas’s sense of dance lit up the first movement, and Shaham’s soulful contribution dignified the second, once we moved into the palindrome of that movement, the stupefyingly virtuosic cadenza and the densely busy Rondo finale, any sense of actual music was stifled under layers of serial process, winding on and on with the monotony of rhetorical gesture that is such a feature of Schoenberg’s least appealing works. Berg loved the discipline of extra-musical puzzles, but they needed to be his own, from the heart, as in his Violin Concerto, not those approved by his teacher.

How very different to Mahler’s first symphony, a work of cataclysmic originality written to no one else’s agenda. And a work that needs no introduction – as soon as that unearthly ‘A’ spreads across the orchestra, we’re transported to another dimension. Tilson Thomas and the LSO embarked on a performance sizzling with energy and youthful spirits. Strings were fleet and delicate in a first movement which was far from ‘gemächlich’ (leisurely) and climaxes were hard driven, though cellos and basses found a limpid glow for the wayfaring song. The second movement sprang into action with the robust edginess of a great string section, led by the deliriously extrovert Roman Simovic, the LSO’s co-principal. One could feel the force of his personality in the klezmer section of the slow movement, too, sparks flying as he veered towards, but didn’t cross, the line of over-dominance. This funeral march, again, was not a slow one, but dignified with beautiful wind solos and the airiest portamenti.

Tilson Thomas drove his finale hard and fast, not allowing for any spacious fullness until the very last climax. Heaven-storming indeed, if only the Barbican Hall would lend some bloom to the orchestra’s sound… where’s a Musikverein when you need one?

The London Symphony Orchestra next appears at the Barbican on 14 June in a programme of Purcell, Mozart and Bruckner with pianist Maria João Pires, conducted by Bernard Haitink.