Shostakovich's cello concerto No.2 (1966), with the viola sonata perhaps the greatest work of his final decade, is still much misunderstood and only rarely performed. While Mario Brunello butchered it two seasons ago with Gergiev (see that review for more comments on the work), Ma and Tilson Thomas offered an ascetic, bleached out rendition that stressed the work's modernity and bleakness at the expense of line, warmth and humanity.
The three works that Ma presented in this series represent three of the greatest works that were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, the ubiquitous cellist of the latter half of the 20th century. Comparing performers can be futile and unfair, but when the performer actively courts the comparison, ones mind cannot help but drift. Though in later years, Rostropovich's lack of practising lead to a diminishing of expressive range and the cementation of the niggling criticism that he just played everything loud, in his prime, (early 50s to mid 70s), he was of course one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, an unparalleled communicator and a sublime cellist and who musically totally transcended the instrument, unerringly managing to get directly to the heart of every piece he played, whilst always being recognisably himself. His studio recording of the Shostakovich's cello concerto No.2 with Ozawa is one of the highlights of his discography and offers a diametrically opposed view of the work as presented in this concert - the first movement emerges as a single arch of agonising beauty, the cello an orator in an unsettlingly beautiful wasteland. With Ma, everything was secco, portato, dry, thin, a severe lack of legato and warmth leaving the movement feeling undernourished and dessicated. This is not a totally unreasonable view of the work, and the playing wasn't exactly bad, but my strong suspicion is that Ma has stopped practising regularly and this is merely the safest way of playing this ferociously difficult piece - throughout I felt that expression was far too often sacrificed to technical security, where technical security means just about managing the notes. He's recognisably still the same player as he was in his prime (mid 80s to early 2000s), with his particular palette of vibratos and distinctive placement of semitones still in evidence, but the sensitive sound, with its warm core and minutely nuanced legato, only intermittently appears as it was back then. The second movement's insouciant bagel/prostitute song fared much better, and finally we got some tone, though the finale again failed to catch light, lacking in intensity and energy. Ensemble throughout was quite ropey, and the whole piece felt underrehearsed, both orchestra and soloist frequently totally at sea rhythmically.
Before this we had heard a quite wonderful account of Copland's Quiet City (1940), a minor, but in its way perfectly realised miniature from his populist phase. Whether quietly lonely and wistful, or energetic "all American" exuberance, Copland's music has a cleanliness and clarity without coldness, a sobriety and concision without asceticism; it's made of hard lines and angles, all ribs and elbows, but strangely the result is embracing and warm. Michael Tilson Thomas achieved all this perfectly with the LSO players, the open chord spacings resonating with a nostalgic glow and atmospheric breadth.
Finally we heard a suite from Britten's only ballet, The Prince of Pagodas (1957). The piece is heavily influenced by the Gamelan music that he had heard during a visit to Bali in 1956, and as it turned out this sound world was to have a profound and lasting influence on the music of his last two decades, in which his style became ever grittier, more rarefied and pared down. In the Prince of Pagodas the influence is hardly digested, and while not just "local colour" pasted onto his existing style, the rendering of the Gamelan sound in the orchestra is a bit literal and impersonal, though doubtless achieved with great skill. Britten was not the musical stylist that say Stravinsky was and had greater difficulty integrating this fertile resource convincingly into his highly personal style - it simply took longer and found its finest flowerings in Curlew River (1964, though Japan is the bigger influence there) and the final opera Death in Venice (1973). In 1957 however, this was a compositional mind at the peak of its powers and there can be no doubt of the mastery of this score, immaculately imagined and realised. Other influences are very close to the surface also: Tchaikovsky of Swan Lake and Nutcracker, filtered through Petrushka, filtered through Gamelan, might be a reasonable order of importance. This was an explosive reading of this fantastical score, and presumably this is where the rehearsal time went - here the ensemble was much better, and textures more precisely achieved. I'm not sure it works fully as a concert piece - it feels not quite varied enough for its considerable length. Still fascinating to hear, especially in such a committed and energetic reading.